LOS ANGELES -- Is your teen a couch potato? A new study suggests the family dog might be able to help.
Researchers had 618 kids ranging from 12 to 16 wear accelerometers for a week to measure their physical activity. Half the families had dogs and half did not.
The study showed the kids in families with dogs got 32.1 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per day, while those without dogs got 29.5 minutes. The difference isn't much, but lead author John R. Sirard said it's big enough to suggest more study be done.
Parents of the teens also wore the lightweight devices, but the difference in activity levels between adults in the two groups was nonexistent, Sirard said, suggesting the kids might have been the ones taking the dogs out. The families were not asked who cared for the dogs.
The study, done at the University of Minnesota, was one of the first to examine the relationship between adolescents and dogs. Sirard, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said the research didn't take into account the size or breed of the dog, the safety of the neighborhoods where the families lived or the level of attachment the kids had to the pets.
It's also possible that more active families were the ones that decided to get dogs in the first place, he said.
The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. Results appear in the March issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
"I do think dogs could make a difference," said Dr. Antronette Yancey, a health services professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "As a dog owner myself, I can say that dogs are extremely consistent prompts to get you out and walking."
Yancey, who wrote the book "Instant Recess: How to Build a Fit Nation for the 21st Century," agreed more research was needed. "Sometimes these little clues that you get from a small study can actually burgeon into something that's very meaningful," she said.
We already know a few things about the impact of pets on health, Yancey said. "We know pets are good for older people and good for lowering blood pressure and a variety of other reasons, so if they are also good for physical activity, great."
The dogs were not studied, Sirard said, so there is no way to know if less active dogs put on weight or experienced any other side effects. He hopes to follow up with a larger sample and more questions, and he might put accelerometers on the dogs as well as the humans next time.
First, he'll practice with his 3-year-old, 25-pound mixed terrier Della. The two go walking and running every morning, then his 8-year-old daughter takes care of him the rest of the time.