Exercising with your dog: Keep Your New Year's Exercise Resolution!

We’re already into the second decade of the 21st century (Remember Y2K? How faraway and quaint that unnecessary panic was!), and it’s almost the end of the first month of 2011 (Happy New Year!). Are you sticking to your New Year’s Exercise resolution? Most people drop off within the first two months, and it may not be surprising to hear that many people fall of the exercise wagon within the first two WEEKS after nothing but good intentions and fat gym membership fees!

However, if you’re a parent to a slobbery, furry kid, aka a DOG, you have a live-in exercise partner that will help you keep to your daily dose of exercise, in the form of daily walks. The NYTimes Well Blog even featured a story about how owning a dog yields the most consistency in exercising and gaining overall fitness improvement.

Interestingly, however, simply having a dog doesn’t automatically correlate with being in shape (shocker!). This is because most people choose pets with a similar activity predisposition to their own, or if pets don’t share their owner’s (low) activity levels to begin with, they often become unwittingly “trained” to live a typically-human sedentary lifestyle. No dog was born to be a couch potato and eat pre-made food regularly dispensed neatly into a bowl!  Some even observe that people choose pets that physically resemble themselves. This means that the overall level of physical activity in a pet ends up correlating to that of their owner, as does their waistline!

One scientific study that looked into the relationship between weight loss (in both people and dogs) and exercising together showed that people who regularly exercised with their dog stuck with their workout plan better than people without dogs. Even celebrities have used their dogs as motivation to lose weight. Remember Nia Vardalos, from My Big Fat Greek Wedding? She said that following the advice of her vet to help Manny, her 6 year old Labrador Retriever, lose weight, also helped her to slim down.  “The two of us lost weight together. The vet had just told us that he was a little bit overweight, so we called it the ‘Manny 6-Lb. Challenge.’ ” She stayed active with daily walks and play time with Manny, which involved chasing a tennis ball.

If you’re just starting out on an “exercise plan” with your dog, or trying to increase your and his activity levels, take it slow. You wouldn’t hit the gym for 3 hours the first day of your membership, would you?  The last thing you want to do is put unnecessary and possibly damaging stress on your dog’s joints and muscles. If your dog has been inactive or is carrying extra weight, just like in humans, high intensity and/or long exercise sessions can be too much for the body and joints, and cause injury.

Start with an evenly paced, low-impact activity, like a short walk or hike, and then begin to increase the length and challenge as you and your dog gets accustomed to the exercise routine. Especially for dogs with joint problems or osteoarthritis proclivities, it’s much healthier to undertake no- or low- impact activities like swimming, paced hiking or walking over high-intensity exercises, like running , jumping, and twisting.

Set attainable and sustainable activity goals for yourself and your pet. If you commit to going on a daily walk, your dog will start to expect it and look forward to it (which will also help to keep you on track!). If you are starting to feel bored with your normal route or type of activity, change it up by trying a new path, or a longer walk. Explore a different park. Drive to a dog-friendly hiking trail. Don’t be afraid to get your paws wet and go for a swim!

And of course, before you start on an exercise program with your dog, make sure you consult with your veterinarian.