Walking the dog could make us happier and healthier than going to the gym, reports LUCY STEPHENS

JANUARY is the time many of us sign up to a gym to pound away those excess Christmas pounds.

But, according to a new survey, we could actually be better off walking the dog than slogging away on the treadmill.

Research commissioned by Butcher's Dog Food found walking a dog daily lowered blood pressure, slowed heart rates, reduced stress and enabled the walker to recover more quickly after a burst of strenuous activity.

The study of more than 1,500 dog owners and gym goers with an average age of 47 found: l The average dog walker trod 676 miles a year - 208 miles than gym goers l Dog owners walked the equivalent distance as Bangkok to London over their pet's lifetime l A third of York's residents were gym members, while 19 per cent had dogs l Most dog walkers were likely to stick to their routine, whereas just over half of gym goers lost interest after two or three months l More than half of gym members reported suffering high stress, compared with 35 per cent of dog walkers.

Dog walkers and gym goers were put on the stepping machine to measure how quickly they recovered after strenuous exercise.

While dog walkers' heart rate had returned to nearly resting rate after eight minutes exercise, the heart rate of gym members was still 29 beats above resting level.

One York woman who is testament to the value of dog walking is Julie Jones, from Rawcliffe, who has lost an astonishing 19 and a half stone after her weight had ballooned to more than 35 stone.

As reported in The Press last month, Julie shed the pounds through determined dieting at Slimming World, but she also swears by the exercise she gets from puppy walking for the charity Guide Dogs For The Blind.

Julie's current dog is Neena, a golden retriever and German shepherd cross who is shortly to go on to her next phase of training to be a guide dog.

Julie, a 41-year-old mother-of-two, said she had taken up puppy walking for the charity again last January after losing her first eight stone.

The charity pays for all vets' bills and food for the animals, and it is up to the walker to make sure the dogs are properly exercised before they are trained more rigorously.

Julie walks Neena for an hour every morning and afternoon, and says having a dog is a real motivation to exercise.

"It gives you a point of doing it," she says. "You think I can't be bothered to go out' but the dog is sitting there moaning and whining. When the weather is horrible it's easy to sit there and do nothing, but having a dog makes you go out."

Julie says she tries to vary her walk with Neena, and sometimes introduces hills into her route to give herself more of a work-out.

"Walking doesn't cost anything, you meet other people and it makes you exercise," she says. "When Neena goes off the lead I make myself walk a bit faster than I did before. When you come back, the weather has been foul, you think I didn't enjoy that, but I'm glad I did it.' "People don't go to the gym - they join the gym and they don't go. Walking is something that anybody can do. What excuse have you got not to walk?"

A third of those polled by the survey walked their dog every day, while a quarter belonged to a gym.

Fewer than one in ten did both, while nearly one in four took no regular exercise at all.

What breed of dog?

There's a dog out there to suit all types of fitness level. Which is the best training partner for you? Researchers had the following advice:* Those who like to stroll: basset hound, whippet, shih-tzu, dachshund, corgi.

* Brisk walkers: boxer, doberman, German shepherd, Jack Russell terrier, retriever.

* Power walkers: border collies, dalmatian, springer spaniels, setters, Weimaraner.