For Exercise Buddies, Four Legs are Better than Two

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I have been a lover of animals ever since I was a tiny tot. We grew up with cats, a bird and a handful of goldfish for pets, but I never experienced the joy of dog ownership until I was in college and my roommate got a miniature daschund that I helped care for. I would feed her, play with her, take her out in the middle of the night, and take her on long walks each day when my roommate was away at work or class. It took dedication, work, and an adjustment to my schedule, but I loved that dog, and the benefits of her companionship made it all worth it. When my roommate and I went our separate ways, I knew I would have a dog of my own someday, but not until I was ready to adjust my routine and lifestyle to best accommodate the dog's needs.

However, things don't always go according to plan. Just a few weeks ago, my fiancé, Evan, found a stray dog near our home. It's not uncommon for us to chase down stray dogs, check for tags, or keep them in our fenced-in backyard until we can find their owners, so I didn't think much of it. But no one was looking for this dog that was very underweight and seemingly untrained, and by the time he had moved her from the backyard to our basement, I had a feeling she was here to stay. I wasn't sure that we had the time to care for a dog. I had always envisioned getting one in the future, maybe if I stayed at home or worked part time—not while we each worked full-time and part-time jobs that keep us away from home for long hours. After much planning, research and discussion, we adopted Ginger. My how our lives have changed over the last few weeks…

Ginger, our new fitness buddy

Evan now wakes up an hour earlier on three weekdays to walk Ginger. On the other two days, I no longer hit snooze before my morning runs—because Ginger is ready to go and needs me to exercise her. I find myself sneaking away from the office during my lunch hour to check on her and take her out for another short walk. And we take turns (based on our work schedules) exercising her every night as soon as we get home. We agreed to commit to walking (or running) our new dog for a minimum of 30 minutes, twice a day, but often, we go for 45 minutes—sometimes a full hour. On the weekends, we usually go out three or four times instead of two, and I've even taken her on a 90-minute hike with me as I trained for an upcoming Grand Canyon trip. I also find myself staying in to cook more dinners at home because I don't want to leave her alone at night, so I'm eating even better, too.

Each time I lead Ginger down the block (channeling my inner Dog Whisperer of course), I think about what a pleasure it is to spend time with my new companion. I also think about what an amazing exercise tool a dog can be. If you want to get in shape, get a dog! (OK, you need to meet a few more criteria to be a good dog caregiver, but you know what I mean.) I have a new hunch that there may be no better exercise buddy than your four-legged friend is, and recently I discovered a recent study that backs me up.

When researchers from the University of Missouri assigned older adults from an assisted living home to walk with either a human companion of their choice (friend, husband, etc.) or a canine companion (from a local animal shelter) five days a week, the dog walkers showed better improvements in fitness, exercise consistency, walking speed, and balance. Researchers say that it's easy for human fitness buddies to make excuses or discourage their partners from exercising. But dogs acted in an opposite matter: they were always ready to go each day and that seemed to help motivate their human partners to get going, too. The older adults who walked dogs increased their walking pace by an unheard of 28% from the start of the study, and many even stopped using canes and walkers as their balance and fitness improved. In contrast, subjects who chose human walking buddies only increased their pace by 4%.

Ginger is a great fitness buddy in that regard. She doesn't let us sleep in or plop on the couch because she has energy to burn and will let you know if she needs some exercise. I've always considered myself to be a pretty fast walker, even when I'm just taking a stroll or walking through a mall, but Ginger forces me to walk even faster than my normal pace, which usually elevates my heart rate into an aerobic range (about 55% of my max)—higher if we're climbing up the many hills around my house. On average, I'd say that walking Ginger has added about three more hours of physical activity to my week, and I'm happy to reap the many health and fitness benefits of that new activity.

If you own a dog but haven't walked him or her consistently, consider this a reminder that it's vital and beneficial for both of you! Just be sure, whether you're new to dog ownership or have had your companion for awhile, that you gradually increase his or her exercise time, speed and distance—just like humans should. You can't go from couch potato to marathon runner in a week, and neither can your dog. This article by Coach Jen explains how to gradually build your canine's endurance. If you and your dog are consistent walkers and feel ready to kick it up to jogging, check out this dog-running guide from Runner's World for tips and ideas.

Do you think dogs make better fitness buddies than people? Pet owners, does your dog encourage you to get more active?