When we got our dog, Strider, on a whim seven years ago (note to self: Don’t ever send your husband to the pet store with the kids while you buy baby-shower gifts), I was excited to finally have a running partner. It seemed like a no-brainer: Strider was a healthy, 18-month-old Australian shepherd with plenty of energy.
But my dream died an early death. Strider went on two short runs with me the first week. When I tried to take him a third time, we were about 30 steps in when he dug his heels in and refused to budge. To this day, he does the same thing if I try to run with him. Often he does it even if I just try to walk him.
For a long time, I thought this meant that all the supposed health and fitness advantages of owning a dog didn’t apply to me. But the longer we’ve had Strider, and the more research I’ve come across, the more I realize that just the fact that he lives in our house confers health benefits on our whole family. Here’s what science says.
Dog Owners Get More Exercise
Abundant research shows that dog owners are more likely than non–dog owners to exercise. One study, published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, found that those who own dogs were 69 percent more likely than those who don’t to do physical activity in their leisure time. Another study of older adults discovered that those who walked with a dog improved their walking speed by 28 percent over 12 weeks versus a 4 percent increase for those who walked with a human companion. And even though my dog won’t walk with me (unless his girlfriend—my friend’s cute poodle, Mabel—comes along), he still makes me move more, whether it’s while feeding him or picking up his dog bombs or getting up from my computer 7,462 times a day to let him in or out through our back door.
Dogs Improve Other Health Markers
Studies reveal that owning a dog corresponds with lower triglyceride levels and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, although it’s not clear which factor drives the other. It is known, however, that just 15 minutes of playing with a pet can reduce your blood pressure and heart rate. And a University of Michigan study found that among people ages 65 and older, dog owners made 30 percent fewer trips to the doctor than non–dog owners. Also, even though dogs are dirty (as my carpet can testify), having one in the house might contribute to good gut flora and may even decrease the likelihood of allergies, eczema and the like in children, especially when they’re exposed in infancy.
Dogs Make You Feel Good
You don’t really need a study to prove this (unless your dog just did his business in your living room or chewed up your Nikes), but there are plenty out there anyway. Spending time with a dog is clinically proven to combat depression, anxiety and even dementia. It floods your system with feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Which is a scientist’s way of saying that dogs—despite all their messiness, quirkiness and expensiveness—have a unique gift of making you feel warm and fuzzy inside, while keeping you fit and healthy, inside and out.
Kellee Katagi is one of those strange souls who actually enjoys working out for the sake of working out. She’s spent most of her 20-plus-year writing and editing career covering fitness, nutrition and travel, as well as outdoor sports ranging from skiing to spelunking to street luge (yes, that’s a thing).