A Dog Can Make A Great Exercise Partner.

November 14, 2011

Walking a dog is a great way to stay active

Many of us have heard how dogs and other pets are good for our health. They can improve our moods, ease anxiety, and help manage depression. Some studies say dogs even help with problems like high blood pressure. And we've all seen dogs at work helping people with other health or emotional problems.

Now a group of studies is showing that dogs can also help us adopt, and keep, healthier fitness levels.

People who own and walk dogs are 34 percent more likely to meet national physical activity guidelines than people who don't. So says a study led by Michigan State University's Matthew Reeves. Reeves is an epidemiologist, a doctor who studies health events and health patterns in different groups of people.

An article about the study is on worldscience.net. The study, of more than 5,000 people, looked at how much leisure-time physical activity the average person gets. Public health standards say people should spend at least 150 minutes each week running, walking, dancing, playing sports, or gardening to stay in good health.

Fewer than half of Americans actually reach that level, said Reeves. But it looks like owning and walking a dog is a good start. "There is no magic bullet in getting people to reach these benchmarks," Reeves said. "But owning and walking a dog has measurable impact."

Another article about the same study on Time magazine's "Healthland" website offers more results. Nearly half of the 2,170 dog owners in the study said they exercised 30 minutes a day at least five days a week. Only a third of the people in the study who didn't own dogs exercised that much.

There's more. It seems being "a dog person" can also help make you more of a "fitness person" in general. In Reeves' study, people who walked their dogs were also more likely to dance, garden, and play sports. On average, this meant they got an extra 30 minutes of exercise per week.

Said Reeves: "Obviously you'd expect dog walkers to walk more … but we found a strong link between owning and walking a dog and higher levels of physical activity."

Another article about a study by the Mars Petcare Company and a 2010 study by the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) also report that people with dogs get more exercise. There's a fun video at the AARP website about dogs and their owners and exercise. At the end of the day? Although the numbers vary, the studies agree that people who walk their dogs tend to be more fit than people who don't.

Dogs make better exercise partners than people?

So it seems in a University of Missouri study, anyway. A New York Times article says that researchers followed 54 older adults at an assisted living home for 12 weeks. Some of these people chose a friend or spouse as a walking companion. Others were given a dog to walk each day at a local animal shelter.

At the end of the study, the dog walkers showed much more fitness improvement. In fact, the dog walkers increased their walking pace by 28 percent! Meanwhile, the human-companion walkers only increased theirs by 4 percent.

Overall, the study found dogs to be a better influence on their human exercise partners. The study subjects who walked with other people often complained about the heat. They also talked each other out of exercise. But the people who walked with dogs didn't make those excuses.

Dogs are also good for social life.

Dr. Sandra McCune didn't write the book on the subject, but she did help put one together. "The Health Benefits of Dog Walking for People and Pets" is co-edited by McCune, an animal behaviorist in Leicestershire, England. Like the others, McCune says that studies show people who walk dogs are more likely to meet the daily activity standards. "Personally, I have a Labrador. When it's dark, when it's raining, the dog needs a walk, every day." She also says that dog walking is good for social and communal life: "If people go out with a dog, they're more likely to have a conversation."

So why not let your exercise go to the dogs?

This article from Reuters International supports the idea. Florida fitness instructor Shirley Archer sees a lot of good in dogs and exercise. Archer thinks dogs' energy and enthusiasm can help people stick with their exercise programs.

Laura Cartwright Hardy, a dog-owning grandmother in Little Rock, Arkansas, totally agrees. "They certainly keep you honest about walking," Hardy said. "Those big brown eyes make it impossible to say no."

Hardy says her dogs have kept her fit in other ways, too. She began lifting weights in her 30s so that she could handle her German Shepherds' giant bags of dog food. "I've had big dogs since I was 20 and that's definitely part of the reason I've always been fit," she says. To get the most out of dog-walking for exercise, you need to clock at least 150 minutes a week, or about 22 minutes a day of good solid walking. This should get easier to achieve as you and your dog get in better shape.

But why limit your activity to just walking? Shirley Archer, the Florida fitness teacher who's also a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, says dogs can help you unleash all kinds of creative exercise options. "Frisbee tossing, ball throwing, agility competitions, dog and human boot camps … (they all) are great opportunities to be active."

And of course, most dogs are happy to be active. They're made to be that way, in fact. As pack animals, dogs are built to cover a large territory in a social group. The more activity you share with your dog, the tighter your bond. You're part of the pack. And leading the way in activity can also help make you leader of the pack.

Training tips

WebMD has a great series of tips and information about exercising with your dog. Here's a partial list:

  1. Brisk walking.

    Helps lead to a stronger heart, lower blood pressure, more energy, and denser bones. It also helps lower the risk of depression. For dogs, regular walks can also clear up behavior problems. Especially problems that come from too much bottled-up energy. "There's no set rule for how far a dog should walk," says Kathy Scott, DVM, of Texas A&M University. "Just work slowly toward a goal with a gradual increase in the speed and length of walks."

  2. Dancing with your dog.

    No kidding! Look for a group or information on "canine freestyle." Basically, you arrange a dance routine to lively music. Your dog runs around your legs and does tricks. Meanwhile, you both get an aerobic workout. Dancing burns calories and builds stamina, balance, muscle tone and bone density. It also reduces blood pressure.

  3. Jogging.

    First, make sure your dog is built for distance running. Dogs like Greyhounds are bred for short-distance sprints. This means long-distance runs can hurt them. A breed like a Labrador Retriever, however, is built for long-distance runs. Start slowly and build up to a 30-minute routine. A good one is five minutes of warm-up, 20 minutes of jogging, and five minutes of cooldown. Because dogs can't sweat, don't run in the heat of the day. And of course, if your dog lags behind you, stop and make sure she's okay. Also, jogging is too hard for puppies. It's best to wait until your dog is full-grown.

  4. Swimming.

    Great for both people and dogs with arthritis. It's easy on the joints, but it's still a terrific workout. Swimming works different muscle groups, boosts endurance, and strengthens the heart and lungs. But remember: not all dogs like to swim. If toys, treats and other positive things don't have your dog jumping into the water with you, find another sport.

  5. Frisbee.

    The perfect canine workout. You can play in your own yard or join a local "Disc Dog" team. Competing may give you and your dog a push to practice more often. "Goal-oriented sports are great," says Scott, "because they not only allow the dog to exercise, but also are a fun activity that allows for continued behavior training and contributes to the owner-pet bond."

  6. Hiking.

    To a dog, it's the best of all worlds. "Most dogs love to go out and visit new smells, see other animals," Scott tells WebMD, "all while spending time with their owner." Don't forget to make your hike lively; you need to boost your heart rate. And if you live in an area with ticks and Lyme disease, wear protective clothes. Use an insect repellent with DEET, and have your dog vaccinated. After hiking, check yourself, and your dog, for ticks.

  7. Agility Training.

    Dogs like goals, and agility training is all about goals. Your dog races through a course or ladders, hurdles, tables and tunnels while you run alongside telling him how brilliant he is. The fast pace gives both of you a real workout and helps your dog's coordination and obedience. It's also a nice way to meet other people and dogs. Look for a local dog-agility group, or for a park with an agility course you can use on your own time. If you're really serious, you can even compete.

  8. Soccer.

    You kick the ball, and your dog tries to pass it back with his nose or paws. The plastic soccer-style dog exercise balls at your pet supply store are best for this. You can also use a regular soccer ball. But be careful about kicking the ball at your dog's face or body. Besides perhaps hurting her, it could make your dog less eager for another match.

  9. Rollerblading.

    This takes some work. But experts say rollerblading with your leashed dog can be safe with the right training. The goal is to have your dog run right next to you without pulling on the leash. You may be able to promote this by giving her treats when she runs in the right position.

  10. Cycling.

    As in rollerblading, biking safely with your dog takes special training. A device called a "Springer" may help you do this. It attaches the leash to your bike and absorbs some of the shock from tugs or pulls. If your dog spots a squirrel or an especially good-looking fire hydrant, this could be very helpful. And when you're riding, keep close watch on your dog's condition. Remember: he never gets to coast!

  11. Fetch.

    Fetching a ball or toy is great exercise for your dog. But not for you if you just stand there. Get creative! Do lunges or abdominal crunches as you throw the ball. And while a heavy ball might help you build more muscle, a soft, lightweight toy is safer for your dog's mouth.

Don't forget a trip to the vet.

"A good vet evaluation is always important before changing your dog's lifestyle," Scott explains. "The veterinarian will want to evaluate your dog for any heart, lung, or other health problems." It's also important to check for arthritis or other disease. A dog with problem joints or ligaments may need lower-impact exercise.

Other WebMD tips for healthy exercise with your best friend:

  1. Build a routine that works with your job schedule, other demands on your time, and your dog's needs. Young dogs and working breeds usually need a lot of exercise. Start with a short-term goal of just five or 10 minutes a day. Slowly work up to 30 minutes most days of the week. And learn about your dog's physical limits. For example, "deep-chested" breeds like Great Danes or Doberman Pinschers shouldn't exercise right after meals.
  2. Don't overdo it. You'll have to pay attention, especially when working out with a young or energetic dog. If you're too breathless to talk, you may be working too hard. If your dog is breathing fast, panting hard, staggering, or refusing to follow you, that's a pretty good sign he is, too. And if either of you are stiff, sore, or tired for hours after a workout, take it easier next time.
  3. Prevent heat exhaustion. On hot days, carry a water bottle and foldable drinking bowl. Or exercise in places with a public water source. Excessive panting, confusion, weakness, and collapse are all signs your dog is dehydrated. Note: short-faced breeds like bulldogs and boxers are at higher risk because they can't pant well.
  4. A thought for paws. Long walks on rough surfaces can hurt a dog's paws. Scott says this is another good reason to start slowly. This way, she says, "most dogs will develop thicker pads on their feet and not have problems." And watch out for asphalt or sand on hot days. Even thick paw pads can get burned. In snow, check your dog's paws for ice build-up. And if you work out on very rough surfaces, think about dog booties. You can find them in many pet stores or catalogs.
  5. You can teach an old dog new fitness tricks. Senior dogs, especially those with arthritis, really should exercise. It helps with flexibility and endurance, and strengthens muscles around the joints. It can also help your dog avoid health problems due to obesity. Bowel function, which is especially important in older dogs, also benefits from exercise. And, since obesity tends to make arthritis worse, any activity that helps your dog lose weight could help him in the long run. Try low-impact exercises like swimming and easy walking with your old friend.
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