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SECTION TWO – Healthy Communities

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

(World Health Organisation)

Obesity, poor nutrition and sedentary lifestyles have been described as a 21st century plague in developed countries. In addition, depression and anxiety are estimated to effect one in four people during their lifetime(29) and it is predicted that these will be a leading cause of disability around the globe by 2020.(30)

Although the US is often stereotyped as the most overweight nation on earth, Australia is not far behind with about 2.5 million Australians obese (1 in 5 males and 1 in 6 females aged over 18) and another 4.9 million overweight.(31) Energy imbalances (in other words eating more than we burn up in energy) contributes to this, with another survey reporting that 70% of Australians (aged 15 and over) did either no or low levels of exercise.(32)

While not negating the role of individual choices, the environments in which we live and work play a critical role in shaping our health opportunities and behaviour. Mounting attention has therefore recently turned to the role that the built environment and local community can play in determining our health.

Physical activity for example, can be influenced by the availability and quality of local parks, shops and other walkable destinations, road networks, footpaths, traffic and road safety, street lighting, and the presence of nature.(33) Many of these elements also impact on mental health, for example the social connections that are generated through the use of parks, open space and public places.

Communities and councils around Australia are recognising the impact that they can have in fostering active living, strong social connections and sound quality of life for all residents.

The Hobart City Council and the city of Stirling Council case studies demonstrate the utilisation of pets as an existing resource to encourage physical and social activity.

DOG WALKING AND PHYSICAL HEALTH

Walking and physical activity is strongly linked to improved general health and lower risks of obesity, heart disease and blood pressure problems. Many studies now associate pets, and particularly dogs with increased levels of physical activity. Australian research indicates that not only do dogs motivate their owners to walk more often and meet recommended levels of physical activity;(34) but also that children who own dogs are less likely to become overweight or obese.(35) With obesity also a growing problem among the pet population(36) dogs themselves stand to benefit.

In the “Dog Ownership can address obesity epidemic” case study, Dr Jo Salmon reports on studies the physical benefits that children harness from owning dogs.

MENTAL AND SOCIAL HEALTH

There is increasing evidence of the benefits that physical activity has on mental health and wellbeing.(37) Walking for example, can provide contact with nature which can be restorative, provide stress relief and be beneficial to mental health.(38) Similarly, it also provides opportunities for informal contact with others.

More people and dogs out walking, combined with an increase in regular walks, can further a sense of safety in the community(39) while well exercised dogs are less likely to behave anti-socially.(40) All of which is critical in building and maintaining community cohesion, pride, and social capital. This in turn has been linked to better general health,(11) lower mortality rates,(8) positive child development(14) and less violent crime.(13)

The “A Sense of Safety…” case study explores the way in which dogs and dog walking promote a sense of safety in the community.

 

Healthy Communities Case Studies

Dog ownership can address obesity epidemic

Physical activity and responsible dog ownership promoted through Council walking group

Planned event promotes benefits of walking for dogs and people

Sense of safety strengthened through dogs at home and on the street

 

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