A dog can be a great exercise partner

Walking a dog is a great way to stay active

We know they can be good for our spirits, but it turns out dogs can be good for our physical health, as well.

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. His research indicates that people who own and walk dogs are 34 percent more likely to meet national physical activity guidelines than people who don't.

For major health benefits, people should do a total of at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity each week.1

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." 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."

Are dogs better exercise partners than people?

A 2016 report from a University of Missouri study offers some compelling evidence! 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, while others were given a dog to walk each day through a local animal shelter.

A 2016 report from a University of Missouri study offers some compelling evidence! 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, while others were given a dog to walk each day through 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 one's 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?

Training tips

Most dogs are happy to be active. The more activity you share with your dog, the tighter your bond. WebMD has a great series of tips and information about exercising with your dog. Here are just a few of their suggestions:

  1. Brisk walking.

    Walking not only helps lead to a stronger heart, it can lower blood pressure, give you more energy, and strengthen bone density. 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! It's called "canine freestyle." It can be as simple or as choreographed as you like. Basically, you and your dog rock out to lively music. You'll both get an aerobic workout, and dancing burns calories and builds stamina, balance, muscle tone and bone density. And it's just plain fun - for you and for your dog!

  3. Jogging.

    First, make sure your dog is built for distance running. A breed like a Labrador retriever, for example, 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 cool-down. Also, jogging is too hard for puppies, so it's best to wait until your dog is full-grown.

  4. Swimming.

    Swimming is 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.

  5. Frisbee.

    It's a classic 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 because they not only allow the dog to exercise, but they allow for continued behavior training and contribute to the owner-pet bond.

  6. Hiking.

    To a dog, it's the best of all worlds - time with you and time outdoors. 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 and use an insect repellent with DEET. After hiking, check yourself, and your dog, for ticks.

  7. 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.

  8. Cycling.

    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!

  9. Fetch.

    Fetching a ball or toy is great exercise for your dog, but it won't do you much good 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.

Check with your vet

Sound fun? Here are some practical suggestions from the good folks at WebMD to help you and your dog get off to a good start:

  1. Take your dog to the vet to make sure he’s strong and healthy enough for an exercise regimen.
  2. 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.
  3. Don't overdo it, 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Long walks on rough surfaces can hurt a dog's paws, so start slowly. Over time, most dogs will develop thicker pads on their feet and not have problems. Also, 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.
  6. Senior dogs, especially those with arthritis, really should exercise. It helps with flexibility and endurance, and strengthens muscles around the joints. 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.

* Links to other websites from this site are provided for your convenience only and do not constitute or imply endorsement by Humana of these sites, any products or services described on these sites, or of any other material contained therein. Humana disclaims responsibility for their content and accuracy.

This material is provided for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your doctor to determine what is right for you.

The lowdown on diet pills

Know the side effects and serious risks before your start taking diet pills.

Read the truth about diet pills

Lead a happier, healthier life as a caregiver

Make time for yourself and lessen the stress even when you’re caring for someone else.

Read about coping as a caregiver

Bent out of shape by back pain?

Find out what you need to know about common causes, diagnosis and treatment.

Read about back pain basics