Research in The American Journal of Public Health last month found that children who had a dog at home were more active compared with dogless ones (my word, not the researchers). Although dogless kids may ultimately be safer (no bites, no Salmonella-tainted food, no getting pulled across the street) they may also be more likely to be overweight. Having a dogless home is not a new risk factor for obesity, but this study may offer some insight into childrens’ lives.

Who knows why kids with a dog are more active. We can all certainly speculate. But, this may be a chicken or the egg type question. Or a dog or the kid one. Let me explain:

Research around preventing obesity focuses on improving diet, restricting sugary beverages, increasing activity and reducing screen time. Yet often, when you live in the city, in a rainy or cold climate, it can be hard to figure out ways to get your kids out and about, moving, and exercising. This study looks at another lifestyle choice that can improve the odds of staying lean: the family dog. But characteristics of those families that get dogs versus those that don’t, may have more effect on overweight than the dog itself. Even so, I want to understand. We know kids who are overweight as kids are more likely to be overweight as adults. So figuring this out now for our kids matters.

In the Study:

  • Over 2000 school age children in England were asked to wear activity monitors (on their belts) for one week. The monitors measure steps, movement, and light to vigorous activity levels. (cool, huh?)
  • 10% of families had dogs. Children with a dog spent more time in light, moderate to vigorous, and vigorous physical activity and recorded more overall activity counts, counts per minute, and steps compared with non–dog owners.

It certainly doesn’t surprise me that children with a dog in the house move around more. Even with our aging, sedate Labrador, F & O seem to energize when she’s around. These days they are just figuring out how to really mess with her…And Luna is exciting for them, compelling and captivating. Taking her outside is a great excuse in the evenings, but it doesn’t always happen (my fault).

We know adults who have dogs may take 25% more steps per day than dogless ones (presumably because they walk the dog). But do F & O stay leaner because of her? Do they do less sedentary activity because of her? The question raised by the lead researcher in this study on childrens’ activity level regards the why: “Is it that owning a dog makes you more active or that more active families choose to have a dog? It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question. Long term studies are needed to answer it, but it may be a bit of both.”

Whatever the reason, getting a dog may help prevent overweight. Remember that the (im)balance for kids over time may be no more than eating 100 extra calories a day (or burning off the same). If we can tweak a child’s diet slightly (by reducing one soda or cup of juice) or decrease TV by even 1 hour, every day, we make make great strides. It’s not easy to do this; but it’s achievable for families committed to change. Over time, reducing 100 calories a day will make a huge impact. Increasing activity can do the same. Maybe getting a dog can as well.

Something new to add to my daily conversations about keeping kids lean-mean-fighting machines. Now be off to the rescue, the shelter, or the pet store; it may be time to invite a dog home.