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Want Kids to Get Exercise? Get a Dog

Study Shows Children With a Dog in the Family Are More Likely to Stay Fit

By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Sheena Meredith, MD

Sept. 24, 2010 -- The days are getting shorter and there'll soon be less time for children to be active outdoors. However, those with a dog in the family have a better chance of staying fit, according to a new study.

Researchers from St George's, University of London say owning a dog could encourage children to be active and help combat rising childhood obesity.

A team led by Christopher Owen, a senior lecturer in epidemiology, studied the activities of 2,065 children between age 9 and 10 drawn from schools in London, Birmingham, U.K., and Leicester, U.K. Around 10% of the children (202) lived with dogs.

Participants were monitored for a week and their exercise levels were recorded using activity monitors.

The results, published in the American Journal of Public Health, showed that the children with dogs spent an average of 325 minutes doing physical activity every day -- 11 more than those without dogs. The dog-owning participants took 360 more steps than the others, an increase of 4%.

Cause and effect may be hard to prove, though. “The more active lifestyles of children from dog-owning families is really interesting -- is it that owning a dog makes you more active or that more active families choose to have a dog?” says Owen in a statement. “It's a bit of a chicken and egg question. Long-term studies are needed to answer it, but it may be a bit of both.”

Owen says that previous studies have looked into how active adults are before and after getting a dog and have found that they do take more exercise afterwards. “This study is novel in showing that children who have a dog are more active, but, again, long-term studies are needed to see if the effect is seen before and after owning a dog,” Owen says.

Cathy Ross, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, says in an emailed statement: “No matter how they do it, making sure kids get plenty of opportunities to be physically activity is incredibly important. If that means playing with the dog or taking it for a walk, as this study highlights, visiting a local playground or walking to and from school, getting outside and getting active can only be a good thing. Children and young people should try and be physically active for at least an hour each day to make sure they keep their hearts, bodies and minds healthy.”

Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum tells WebMD that the research is welcome and demonstrates how effortless it is to walk off excess calories. “Dogs love being taken for walks and, if they think you're having fun, too, the experience can be very enjoyable for both. The trick is trying to keep up with the dog rather than reining it back to walk at your speed. Ambling along, with the dog champing at the bit, just isn't going to do anything for you. If you haven't got a dog, ask anyone who has if you can join them whilst they exercise -- and, maybe, then walk their dog solo!"

SOURCES: Owen, C. American Journal of Public Health.News release, St George's, University of London.Cathy Ross, British Heart Foundation.Tam Fry, Honorary Chairman, Child Growth Foundation & Board Member and spokesperson, National Obesity Forum.

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