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Dogs and Fitness

Dogs, Exercise, Weight, Obesity

We all know that an important element in living a healthy lifestyle is getting enough exercise. Now there‘s a study from England that suggests owning a dog may encourage children to become more active. This, in theory at least, would help lower rising childhood obesity rates.

The researchers, from St. Georges, University of London, compared the activity levels of 2,065 children from three cities in England. The children all wore activity monitors for a week to determine the amount of daily exercise they were doing. Approximately 10 percent of these 9- and 10-year-old children had dogs.

The results established that those children who owned dogs spent an average of 325 minutes each day doing physical activity, while those without dogs spent 314 minutes being active. This was a grand total of 11 minutes — or 360 steps — more.

Hmmmmm. Even if these children are only walking the dog once a day, 11 minutes doesn’t seem like much. If they took their furry friend to the park, maybe played ball or Frisbee for at least half an hour, that might add up to something over time. But it seems rather unlikely that global childhood obesity rates will begin falling any time soon based on 360 steps more per day.

It’s important to understand that the study is looking at overall physical activity throughout the day, not actual exercise. It counts every step we take, even if it’s only to get a snack from the kitchen or stroll into the bathroom. Maybe these children do a bit more than their dog-free counterparts, but it doesn’t seem to accumulate enough to represent any substantial exercise.

Unfortunately, in the United States, there is plenty of recent research to show that our youth is definitely not getting the physical activity they need. It appears that they are instead spending practically all their free time on some form or another of electronic media. One particularly upsetting study of 2,002 8- to 18-year-olds showed that these kids spent an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes every day watching movies, on the computer, playing video games, and listening to music on a headset. This didn’t even count the amount of time they spent texting or speaking on cell phones, which added yet another 2 hours a day for those in seventh through twelfth grades!

With a much greater percentage of children now owning cell phones and iPods than even just five years ago, they are able to take their viewing habits mobile. They are watching downloaded videos, shows, and movies on these devices while on the go. This is in addition to watching the actual, traditional TV during meals and as background noise while doing other activities (such as social networking) at home.

Studies have shown that excessive media exposure is linked to lower grades in school, behavioral problems, and the weight issue that triggered the study we’re focusing on today. So, if getting a dog isn’t necessarily the answer, what is?

Well, I could throw out the pat answers and tell you to get your kids involved in more physical family activities, go hiking with them, or sign them up for team sports. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Instead, let me recommend that you work with your kids’ tendencies, rather than fight them. They love video games, so indulge them. But don’t buy them the typical passive games that only exercise their fingers. Instead, go for the new generation of video games from Wii and X-Box that involve high levels of physical activity to play. Suddenly, an hour of gaming becomes an hour of vigorous (or at least semi-vigorous exercise.

So if you’re interested in getting a dog for your kids because they’ve always really wanted one and are looking for a new best friend, by all means get them one. But don’t count on 360 extra steps a day making much of a difference in their physical constitution. For that, you’re going to have to work with their tendency to lock into “media.” Now if someone could just figure out a way to make texting a competitive activity.


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