Dog owners over the age of 65 have fitness levels a decade younger than their biological age, according to a new study.
Authors of the research said public health officials should introduce “dog loaning” schemes so more people could benefit from a canine friend.
The study of more than 500 pensioners found that those with dogs were 12 per cent more active than those without.
On average, those with a pet achieved exercise levels the same as those ten years younger, the study from St Andrews University found.
Dog owners also have significantly lower levels of anxiety and depression, researchers found.
Previous studies have looked at the positive benefits of pet ownership on the elderly, with dog owners being shown to have fewer symptoms of depression and decreases in blood pressure and heart rate.
However, the study published in Preventative Medicine is the first to examine in detail levels of physical activity among pensioners with and without dogs.
Researcher Dr Zhiqiang Feng said: “It is well known that pet ownership may help alleviate feelings of loneliness and depression in older people, but one area that has received little attention is the effect of dog ownership on the physical activity levels of the elderly.
“Our results show that dog ownership is associated with an increased level of physical activity in the over-65s.
“On average, older dog owners were 12 per cent more active than their counterparts who did not own a dog.”
Throughout the study, the activity of 547 elderly people in Tayside was monitored — with an average age of 79.
Around 50 people — nine per cent — of those monitored were dog owners, and 75 per cent of these walked their dogs.
Over a seven-day period participants were asked to wear an accelerometer which measured their movements.
The dog owners were found to match the levels of activity of those without a dog, who were ten years younger.
Dr Feng, a senior lecturer at the School of Geography and Geosciences said: “Our results suggest that dog ownership may motivate personal activity and enable older people to overcome many potential barriers such as lack of social support, inclement weather and concerns over personal safety.”
Dr Feng said public health officials should consider setting up schemes to lend dogs to those without them, or to set up walking groups to encourage people to take more exercise.
He said: “Our findings suggest that there may be merit in investigating whether dog ‘owning’ or ‘loaning’ might be a plausible public health intervention to promote physical activity.”