By Peter Koch
The Active Times
News flash: Dogs are good for you. Last month, the American Heart Association released a report in its journal Circulation -- the result of an expert panel's thorough literature review -- listing the benefits of pet ownership on human heart health. It concluded that 1) pet ownership is probably associated with a reduction in heart disease risk factors; 2) owning pets may be associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a lower incidence of obesity; 3) pets can have a positive effect on the body's reactions to stress; and 4) dog ownership, in particular, may help reduce cardiovascular risk.
All of that was great news for dog owners and helped confirm what many of us have always known on a gut level -- dogs really are a human's best friends. But what's perhaps more exciting is that, beyond these more or less passive fringe health benefits of dogs, research also shows that they can be awesome fitness companions and workout pals, too. "Exercising with your pet is a win-win," says Tricia Montgomery, founder of K9 Fit Club, a Hinsdale, Illinois-based fitness club for dog owners that's currently expanding to 31 locations nationwide.
"The best way to stick with a workout program is having a partner who's not going to cancel on you. A dog is always excited to go, he's never going to cancel and he's happiest when he's by your side." In other words, that wagging tail may just be the motivation an owner needs to turn fitness into a routine.
And studies confirm Montgomery's argument. A Michigan State University study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health found that people with canine companions are 34 percent more likely to get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week than are people with other pets or none at all. The study also found that owning a dog promotes health and fitness even after you take your pup for a stroll, increasing leisure-time physical activity by 69 percent.
In a three-month study by the University of Missouri, older adults who walked dogs showed a big improvement in fitness over their counterparts who walked with human friends, and even increased their walking speed by 28 percent. The reason? "Dogs don't make excuses," says lead researcher Dr. Rebecca A. Johnson, director of U of M's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, and co-author of Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound: How You and Your Dog Can Lose Weight, Stay Fit, and Have Fun Together.
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In another University of Missouri study, people who began walking dogs burned off an average of 14 pounds over the course of a year, a number that Johnson notes "is more weight loss than is promised by most nationally-known diet plans."
In the end, maybe the results of all these studies is predictable. It makes sense that your four-legged friend -- who's part cheerleader and part drill sergeant -- will be a great fitness companion. He's always eager to exercise, and expects nothing more than a pat on the head or scratch on the belly for putting you through your daily paces. We asked experts like Montgomery and Johnson for their favorite ways to get fit with their dogs, and came up with this fun list:
OK, so maybe it's obvious, but a good, old-fashioned W-A-L-K is a great way for you to get exercise, and plays an essential role in your pet's overall health. Don't think of it as a chore, or you're likely to quit after a quick lap around the block and a pee, which really isn't enough activity for either of you.
How To Do It: If you have a healthy dog, walk a minimum of 15-20 minutes, which is enough to increase her heart rate and bump up her metabolism. Throw in some spurts of jogging or sprinting to keep your pup excited, and give you both a bit of cardio training.
This summer, when you and your dog are playing fetch from the lakeside dock, get involved and get a workout!
How to Do It: Instead of whipping the tennis ball (or stick or squeeze toy) into the water and sitting back while your pooch performs a sumo splash en route to fetching the ball, dive on in. It's fun to race Rover, plus you'll both benefit from the exercise. Just be sure to keep your clothes and towel away from where he climbs out of the water—and shakes off -- or there won't be a dry scrap of fabric left for you.
It's time you learned how to play fetch, too.
How to Do It: Head outside and throw your dog his favorite toy -- only this time, race him to pick it up. You'll probably lose (unless you do a cheater fake-out move), so you'll have to wrestle the toy from his mouth, toss it again, and start the race all over.
Climbing steps together will tone your legs and butt, while giving pooch a chance to melt away the Milk-Bones.
How to Do It: Pick a long staircase in your house or, better, find one at a local park or in the bleachers at a nearby sports field. Walk up and down the stairs with your dog leashed by your side. If you're feeling good and want to challenge your pet, try changing up your steps by taking two at a time or by bounding up for short bursts. This is an especially challenging workout for a very small dog.
This is exactly like the children's game you played years ago.
How to Do It: You're it to start: "Tag" your dog, then run around the yard and let her chase you. If you have a little dog, chase her instead. After a few minutes, all that sprinting will have both of your hearts pounding, guaranteed. "A lot of chasing activities are fun," Johnson says. "Dogs like to chase and be chased, and it's a more playful twist on exercise than just running or walking."
This is a way for you and your dog to work some circuit training into your routine.
How to Do It: In a fenced-in area, set up an agility course for your pup. "Start out with just five or six cones," says Montgomery. "Or paper plates, if you don't have cones." Then walk briskly or run through the course with your dog leashed, weaving in and out of the plates. To add more of a challenge, leave gear like a jump rope, bosu ball and a fitness step along the course. At each station, stop and do an exercise -- like jumping rope or push-ups using the step -- while your dog sits and waits for you.
Trust us, it's easier to organize a run with your dog than it is the other young professionals you live with. "Dogs are perfect workout partners," says Johnson. "They will never discourage you from exercise -- 'It's too hot. I’m too busy. I’m tired today.' -- all those usual kinds of excuses people give for not exercising. You’ll never hear that from a dog.” Plus, he'll always set his pace according to yours (unless, of course, a squirrel darts in front of you).
How to Do It: Unless your dog is incredibly disciplined, keep him on a leash. Be sure that wherever you run has water available along the route -- a pond or creek will do the trick nicely. Also, pay attention to your pooch --he's likely to fatigue before an experienced runner. Now get out and go!
Strengthen your butt and thighs while your dog gets major air.
How to Do It: Stand with legs shoulder-width apart. Lower into a squat and tap your dog with a treat or his favorite toy. As you rise, lift the toy above your head; your dog will jump up for it. “The dog is actually jumping up at the same time with us, so he’s getting the same jumping motion that we're getting," says Tricia Montgomery of K9 Fit Club, who calls this move Jumping Jack Russell Terriers. "Meanwhile, we're working on our hamstrings, our calves and our core at the same time.”
"Doga" is a partner yoga class that shares your yoga practice with your pet through poses that incorporate a lot of massaging, light stretches, relaxing and bonding. It's great, because it's a fairly easy style of yoga suited to inexperienced yoga practitioners and delivers soothing, restorative stretches for you and your pup.
How to Do It: Classes are popping up all over the country, and free videos are available online
to get you and pooch started.
Do some good with your dog by completing one of several canine-friendly charity races around the country. Like we said earlier, there's no better training partner than a dog, so they present the perfect opportunity for you and pooch to work together toward a fitness goal.
How to Do It: Enter a dog-friendly race, like California's Race for the Rescues (pictured) or the K-9 5K trail race in Cape Cod, and start training! Lists of trail races and road races are available online.
Strengthen your core while your dog sprints through a game of fetch with this exercise developed by celebrity trainer Gunnar Peterson for petfit.com, an initiative he started to help pets get more exercise and eat healthier.
How to Do It: Grab your pup's favorite fetch toy and lay down on the floor in sit-up position. Hold the toy as you do a sit-up, and pretend to toss it as you reach the top. Your dog will chase after it until he realizes you still have his toy. Do another sit-up, and pretend to toss the toy again. Get in as many reps as you can before your dog stops chasing and playing along.