When you feel like you have run out of ideas for motivating patients to engage in regular activity, try this: Ask your patients if they own dogs.
Dog owners tend to engage in more leisure-time activity. People who walk their dogs have a lower prevalence of obesity than owners who do not walk their dogs or non-owners. Clinicians could capitalize on this mutually beneficial relationship and improve patient health.
But can inactive dog owners be motivated to become active?
Ryan E. Rhodes and his colleagues at the University of Victoria (B.C.) evaluated the efficacy of an intervention using messages targeting canine exercise to increase owners’ physical activity. Advertisements were placed for pet owners who did not regularly walk their dogs. Regular dog walking was defined as more than four times per week for a minimum of 30 minutes at a brisk pace, the minimum amount of physical activity recommended for Canadian adults. The intervention group was instructed to read and use materials emphasizing the benefits of exercise for dogs, proper types and amounts of exercise for dogs, tips for regular walking, and motivational quotes from dog owners. The control participants were instructed to continue with their current dog walking pattern. Both groups were asked to wear a pedometer. Outcomes were measured at 6 and 12 weeks.
Both groups increased their physical activity across 12 weeks. Significantly higher step counts were observed in the intervention group as well as higher trajectories in the self-reported activity measures. Further analysis suggested that increases in walking with the dog did not occur at the expense of walking without the dog.
This work leverages the sense of responsibility and obligation that dog owners have to their pets to increase physical activity among the owners. Behavioral change motivated by duty to pets has also been thought to occur with information that secondhand smoke increases the risk for feline malignant lymphoma.
For me, honesty will remain the best policy. This information will be presented best when discussed along with how the benefits of increased physical activity will benefit dogs. In this context, the dog can serve as a "change agent" for long-term beneficial health behavior changes.
Dr. Ebbert is professor of medicine and a primary care clinician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He reports having no conflicts of interest. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.