The benefits of having a four-legged exercise partner
A recent Michigan State University study showed that dog owners were 34 percent more likely to get the recommended 2½ hours of exercise a week than folks without canine companions. And while researchers have long recognized that almost any physical movement and activity is beneficial to human health, they are also beginning to recognize that healthy interactions with animals can increase this positive impact.
“Engaging in physical activity with your pet improves human health and optimism — it changes the brain structure,” says Philip Tedeschi, a clinical professor and human-animal interaction specialist at the University of Denver.
Many people prefer to exercise outdoors with their pets by engaging in traditional outdoor activities like hiking, running, cycling or even active versions of old-fashioned dog games like “fetch.” However, the number of indoor and specialty options for co-exercising with your pet is rapidly growing with demand.
Specialty classes like doga (yoga for and with your dog) and canine-friendly boot camps, obstacle courses and cross-training workouts are becoming increasingly available around the country through companies like Leash Your Fitness in San Diego and Go Fetch Run in San Antonio and New York.
For many people in urban and rural areas, electronic activity trackers like Fit-bit are currently shaping and informing their daily fitness routines. This tech world trend is also being reflected in the world of pet fitness, with pet owners outfitting their four-legged workout buddies with gadgets like Fitbark, which syncs with a smartphone or computer, or the Whistle, which offers built-in WiFi. For the human-canine partners who are both fitness- and fashion-conscious, there’s even Wonderwoof, an activity tracker disguised in the form of a dapper doggie bow tie.
If you want to enjoy the fun and benefits of exercising with a pet but can’t keep one in your home, you still might be able to find a canine exercise partner by contacting animal shelters near you. These organizations often need volunteers to help take dogs on walks or runs, and you can exercise and help socialize a potentially adoptable pet at the same time. Nashville Humane Association has a large dog exercise area and is always looking for volunteers to exercise and socialize their adoptable pets.
In addition to the physical benefits of regular exercise with your pet, there are psychological benefits as well. It releases oxytocin into the brain, Tedeschi says, which, in turn, can improve optimism and increase interaction and feelings of connection. “It causes people to be more empathic or more warm and trusting,” he says.
Also, people tend to connect to other dog owners while they are outside or in these dog-friendly social settings. Since they already have something in common — the love and experience of having a dog — exercising with a dog widens peoples’ social circles, says Dr. Mary Ergen of Companion Animal Hospital in Goodlettsville.