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Your dog can be many things to you: your pal, playmate, bodyguard — and personal trainer. Numerous studies have shown that dog owners are more physically active than people with other pets and those with no pets at all. But over the past few years, it’s become difficult to ignore the fact that dogs in this country are becoming overweight, just like their owners, and for the same reasons: too much food and not enough exercise.
I figured if dogs and people could become overweight together, they could reverse the trend together, so I teamed up with human weight-loss expert Dr. Robert Kushner for our best-selling book, A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together. In that book, we touted the many benefits of having your dog as your personal trainer, such as:
You’ll save money. The National Institutes of Health estimates that Americans spend $36 billion a year on weight-loss products and services, but for many of us, the best piece of exercise equipment is standing by the door, with his leash in his mouth — no enrollment fees or installment payments required.
You’ll save time. Your already-packed to-do list leaves you no time to get to the gym, but exercising with your dog takes little preparation or planning: There’s no need to drive to the gym and back or change into and out of special clothes. You don’t have to clear space on a calendar, and you won’t be restricted by a class schedule or your workout partner’s schedule: When you’re ready to go, so is your dog, no matter the time of day. A half-hour walk takes 35 minutes, with a few minutes on either side for tying your sneakers, snapping on your dog’s leash, and opening the front door.
You have a built-in workout buddy. Once your dog knows that you’re willing to walk, he’ll be as bossy as a boot-camp drill sergeant about getting you going. Nudge-nudge-bark-bark, here’s the leash, and there’s the door. And your dog will never dump you because he doesn’t feel like working out, is too busy or got a better offer.
Before you do anything, lace up your sneakers, pick up your leash, and head out with your dog … to your veterinarian. That’s because the advice to see a doctor before starting an exercise program holds true for your dog, as well, especially if he’s older, overweight or has any chronic health conditions. Don’t forget to ask your veterinarian about pain relief for your dog, because it’s likely that you and your pet will be aching when you start, especially if your starting line was the couch, and if you’re both middle-aged or older. Your veterinarian can suggest safe, effective medications that can ease the aches and pains associated with the start of an exercise program.
While you’re at the veterinarian, take a few minutes to review your dog’s diet, as well, including all the “little bites” you give him, in addition to his daily ration. Your veterinarian will likely remind you that if you absolutely must indulge your dog in snacks, make each portion smaller and substitute carrot sticks for some of the higher-calorie offerings.
Walking. It’s easy, inexpensive, convenient, and effective — and can be your entry into the world of weight-loss and fitness or it can be your entire fitness program. If your dog pulls, ask your vet (or a trainer) for advice about teaching him to walk politely beside you or try a head halter (such as the Gentle Leader) or front-clip harness (such as the Easy Walk), both of which work as power-steering for your pup. Start with 10 minutes a day and slowly build up your speed and distance as you both feel more comfortable. If your dog is lagging behind you or seems to be struggling, reduce the speed and distance for a while until he can comfortably keep up. Be aware that dogs don’t handle heat very well: If you wonder if it’s too hot to walk with your dog, it probably is.
Doga. Yoga with dogs (doga) is designed so both you and your dog get a good stretch and workout. Last year, my daughter, dog-trainer Mikkel Becker, and I were invited to the Santa Monica pier for the Petco event that featured all kinds of activities for dogs and their owners. Doga was among the most popular. Classes are now held all over the nation, and they’re fun for two- and four-legged participants.
Fitness classes. My friend and fellow Vetstreet contributor Arden Moore loves working out with her dogs, Cleo and Chipper, at the Leash Your Fitness classes in San Diego. The classes run like dogless ones, with warm-up, stretches, cardio, and cool-down, except they’re designed to get both dogs and owners moving.
Dog sports. There are dozens of dog sports, from agility to herding tests. Some, however, are less about joint fitness and are more focused on getting the dog moving. Among the most active for both: Agility, where the dog runs an obstacle course with the owner running alongside; skijoring, a kind of hybrid between dog-sledding and cross-country skiing; and heelwork to music, where the dog and owner work together to create something akin to the best of ice-dancing routines.
A quick Internet search will turn up classes and competitions in your area in all these activities.
But even if all you do is add a daily half-hour walk, combined with watching food intake for you and your dog, both of you will end up happier, healthier, and thinner! You’ll never find a better exercise partner than the dog who’s already in your life. So grab that leash and get moving! You may never get the body of a celebrity, but that’s one of the other great things about your dog: He’ll never care.
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