Secret to more energy? This three-letter word

By: Karen Hawthorne, M.A. | Anti-Aging | Friday, August 01, 2014 - 05:10 AM

active, dogThere are dog people and there are cat people. Dog people, for the most part, enjoy spending time with their dogs, going for walks, taking them to the dog park and socializing with other dog owners about dog habits and personality traits, bathing and grooming duties, vet care and so on.

Man’s best friend often requires a social, outgoing owner who’s willing to let small children come up to them and ask to play with their pride and joy, or who doesn’t mind including Fido in trips to the store, the cottage, vacations. He’s one of the family.

Then there are the cat people. They love their pets just as much, but they appreciate the cat penchant for autonomy. While they may enjoy a good stroking, brushing or a catnip treat, cats like their independence. They sleep, eat and sleep some more, residing in their favorite spot in the house, not to be disturbed by the owner. When they want attention, they’ll seek it, mewing in and around your legs or bounding into your lap to purr contentedly. With a kind neighbor to pop in to check on them and provide food and water, cats don’t need – or want – to tag along on family errands or vacations. Far from it!

My parents have a coaster on a rec room side table that says it best: “Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.”

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Do you fall in either category here? My parents are decidedly cat people, and we always had a family cat growing up. They both like to be able to leave the house to spend a weekend away, appreciating their cat’s innate ability to fend for itself. My mom loves having Ginny in her lap at night while she reads or watches TV.

My dad, however, is not so fond of Ginny. He grew up on a farm where cats lived in the barn and caught mice. To this day, he doesn’t really think a cat belongs indoors, let alone being provided all the comforts of an idle life (plus breakfast always served first thing). His nicknames for Ginny go from Ring Ding and Dip Stein to Biscuit Box. You could say that Ginny is really my mom’s cat. I’ve never actually seen my dad pet Ginny.

But if you want to be an active and healthy senior, a cat won’t do the trick. New research out of the U.K. says the ticket to getting off the couch and staying active is owning a dog. Likely a dog that needs to be walked and likes a good game of fetch, not a lap dog that primarily sits or diddles around the house looking for attention.

Researchers looked at data from the Physical Activity Cohort Scotland (PACS) which consists of 547 people aged 65 and over who live in the Tayside region of Scotland. The average age of study subjects was 79 and just over half were women. (My dad, by the way, is 82 years young.)

The data was collected in 2009 to 2011 and used to assess whether dog ownership is associated with objectively measured physical activity.

Dog ownership was positively related to higher physical activity levels. This positive relationship remained after taking into account for individual and contextual variables, including attitude toward exercise, physical activity intention and history of physical activity. Dog owners were found to be 12 percent more active than non-dog owners.

Well, 12 percent may not seem like a lot, but if you estimate that 12 percent of our growing American senior population was more physically active, it would have a significant, positive effect on the rise of sedentary-related disease, obesity and diabetes. Think about it: How much time during the day do you spend sitting down? If it takes a dog barking at us to get outside for a walk, maybe we do need more dog people.

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Dogs can be demanding and costly, but perhaps the health benefit outweighs what my dad would see as an absolute no-can-do option.

I do know that pet therapy, especially for seniors, makes people feel connected and happy, which translates to immune health and a sense of well-being. So I’ve always been glad that my mom insists on having a cat.

I also know that having a workout buddy or walking companion helps people stay active – they have someone to be accountable too and won’t just shrug off a daily walk or fitness class. I’m fully aware that regular exercise is one of the key foundations for good health (hence my three times a week mini-workout in my condo gym that I won’t live without). As the good people from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report, older adults can gain a lot from physical activity:

“Even moderate exercise and physical activity can improve the health of people who are frail or who have diseases that accompany aging. Being physically active can also help you stay strong and fit enough to keep doing the things you like to do as you get older.” Who doesn’t want that?

So I had a conversation with my dad about the study findings, mentioning that the study was carried out in Scotland, home of the brave where my dad has ancestral ties. (I wore the McNaughton tartan for a kilt when I competed in highland dancing, you should know, so I thought that might help persuade him that dogs are longevity-giving pets).

Well, I didn’t get very far. “Dogs? Dogs belong on a farm, running outside so they don’t need walking every morning, noon and night,” my dad said. He also told me that dogs are far too expensive, when you look at food and vet costs. They tie you down so you can’t go anywhere. Definitely not his style.

“If I need to go for a walk, I’ll go for a walk myself.” And he does, most every day.

So, you see, while dogs are proven to be the key to your active, healthy golden years, Ginny is the only pet that’s getting inside my parents’ front door.

Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.


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