The health benefits of dog walking

Bupa Health Editor Natalie Heaton
Health and Lifestyle Editor at Bupa UK
16 October 2019
Next review due October 2022

If you’ve got a furry four-legged friend, I’m about to tell you some great news about your health, especially when it comes to your daily dog walk! There are lots of reported health benefits of dog walking – both for you and your pooch.

What are the benefits of walking your dog?

1. You’re likely to be more active

A piece of research looked at 29 studies over a 20-year period and found that dog owners walked a median amount of 160 minutes a week. Median is the middle point between the highest and lowest amount of time spent walking. They also went out for walks four times a week with their dog. This is great for achieving recommended levels of physical activity over a week.

Another study indicated that people who walk their dogs were more likely to walk about half an hour more than people who don’t have dogs. And if you’re a dog walker, the research suggests that you’re likely to be more physically active in general than those who don’t own dogs.

2. Relax and de stress

Some evidence has suggested that being around a dog may lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. And in an interview study, dog owners said that walking with their dog was relaxing and relieved stress – having a positive psychological impact on their wellbeing. Walking is known to be a therapeutic form of exercise, so it follows that having a dog by your side – with their joyful enthusiasm and desire for fun – enhances the experience.

Laura has a French bulldog called Matilda. I asked her what she liked about walking her dog and she said: “My favourite thing about walking my dog is the excuse to go outside. Not that you need one, but it definitely helps to get me up, out and about! I also think that dogs are just really fun. When I take my dog for a walk she’s always clowning around – she gets so excited it’s hard not to smile.”

3. Mutual motivation

Another interesting finding from the interviews was the idea of ‘co-discipline’ where owners said walking their dog motivated them to form a daily habit. Even getting up early every day, going out in the dark or in the bad weather.

Fay has a black Labrador called Blue. She says: “I like walking the dog because it makes me get outside and exercise – she is awful on the lead so I go to woods or fields where she can run, so I get a good dose of nature and fresh air too. Her enthusiasm for being out and about is infectious, even in the rain.”

What’s more, owners said their dogs knew when it was time for a walk and got excited about the prospect. Not unlike committing to going for a run or an exercise class with a friend, the owner and dogs held each other to account!

4. Shared happiness

Owners also commented on a ‘shared happiness’ – watching their dog have fun and enjoying running around made them feel happy too. They also said that walking with their dog was a great form of exercise because it ‘didn’t feel like exercise’.

Fay says: “I have a desk job and find that since I have the dog it is much easier to up my step count – being more active doesn’t feel like a chore! I will run with the dog too, so generally feel fitter and healthier.”

5. Social connection

Being sociable is good for your wellbeing. Walking your dog naturally brings this about – you’re likely to meet other dog walkers, which helps build a sense of connectedness and wellbeing.

6. Practise mindfulness

Walking, especially in nature, gives you a chance to practise mindfulness and notice the scenery and wildlife around you.

Laura agrees and says: “In terms of health benefits, I think having a dog definitely helps to keep me physically active. I also find myself spending more time out in nature, which benefits my mental health.”

Other health benefits

The evidence is inconclusive, but it has been suggested that compared to dog owners who walk their dogs regularly, people who don’t own dogs may have a higher risk of:

Dr Rebecca Rohrer, Clinical Fellow at Bupa UK, says: “Getting enough exercise can reduce your chance of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, falls, depression, joint and back pain, and some types of cancer. And the benefits to wellbeing are huge too – improving your sleep, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress and improving your quality of life.

“New public health guidelines say that we should all take as many opportunities as we can throughout the day to be active. The more we do, the better it is for our mental and physical wellbeing. So if you have a dog to walk you’re at an advantage, because you have planned activity scheduled into your day from the start. The guidelines state that adults should aim to do exercise every single day, doing at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity over the course of each week. Moderate intensity means that you’re able to talk while exercising but not sing.

“Research indicates that being responsible for a dog and meeting their needs serves as a really good motivator, which can have a great knock-on effect for our health too. What’s more, lots of people find that doing some activity in the morning is a great way to start their day. It can be hard to do exercise at the end of a busy day when your energy levels and willpower reserves are depleted. Walking a dog can be a good way to override this. But whatever time you go out with your dog, as Fay said, you can walk, run and play with them. This will all contribute to doing the physical activity we all need to stay healthy.”

How to get the most out of your dog walk

If you own a dog, here are some top tips on how to make the most of your walks. And if you don’t own a dog and want to get in on the benefits, see if you can join a friend and their pooch on a walk.

  • Walk fast enough to make a difference – moderate intensity means that your heart is beating faster than usual and you feel warm, but you can still hold a conversation.
  • Vary your speed and go up and down some hills. It’s good to use different speeds and intensities of exercise to ensure you’re raising your heart rate. Track your movement with an app – it’s inspiring to see the results!
  • Look around at your surroundings and enjoy the nature, try out some new places to walk your dog: the woods, the beach or fields.
  • Walking can be great thinking time, especially if you’ve got a problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Say hello to other people you meet en-route. Your dog will probably be keen to say hello too!
  • Wear a pedometer to see how many steps you’re taking – it might motivate you to do more. Lots of people who track their steps find that they want to do more to reach a target.
  • Make the most of sunny days, and even dull days. Being outside in daylight can help ease the effects of seasonal affective disorder if this is something that affects you.
  • Recognise and reflect on your mood during and after your walk, you’ll notice a difference!

An image showing Matilda the dog having her tummy tickled 

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Bupa Health Editor Natalie Heaton
Natalie Heaton (she/her)
Health and Lifestyle Editor at Bupa UK

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    • Seasonal affective disorder. Patient., last reviewed 28 September 2016

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