Couple walking dog

Who says that exercise must be limited to sweating at your local gym, fighting for the only unoccupied elliptical machine, or failing to keep pace in a spinning class? You can stay in shape — and have fun — by teaming up with a playful workout partner: your dog.

Regular exercise provides pets and people with physical and mental benefits. Exercise releases endorphins, helps maintain proper weight, improves coordination and balance, and it helps improve strength. Plus, studies show that people are more likely to continue with a weight-loss program if they exercise with their pets.

Warming Up

Before starting an exercise program with your pet, book appointments with your doctor and your pet’s veterinarian for complete physical examinations. Discuss the best workout plan for your pet, based on his health, age, body shape and likes and dislikes. After all, your Basset Hound may surprise you with very Retriever-like behaviors by insisting on fetching a tennis ball again and again. Dr. Marty Becker notes, “Remember to allow a few minutes for you and your dog to warm up, increase exercise gradually as fitness improves and always follow exercise programs recommended by your pet’s veterinarian and your doctor.”

Getting Out the Door

Our experts have identified several terrific options for getting fit with your canine pal:

Walking. Progressively work up to 20 to 45 minutes of walking at a brisk pace with your dog every day, if possible. Vary the route to offer new challenges (and new scents), such as hills, bark-filled paths and sandy beaches. Use this time to reinforce basic obedience commands such as “sit” and “down.” Encourage your dog to walk backward and move in a circle to work various muscles and enhance flexibility. If you notice your pup slowing down or lagging behind, return home and shorten the next session. Your dog should always be out in front of you or beside you — not trailing behind. And, be on the lookout for heavy panting or other signs that your partner is working too hard.

Fetching. For dogs that love to chase, find a safe place for them to be unleashed and let them zoom after their favorite ball or other object. Help prevent injuries to your throwing arm by using a ball tosser that can fling the ball farther than you can on your own. Keep your dog’s interest by flinging the object in different directions and to a variety of distances.

Swimming. Exercising in the water offers a good workout for muscles without the jarring impact that is associated with jogging. Seek a clean pool or body of water free of undertows and currents. Make sure your dog always wears a canine life preserver when he’s in the water. When finished, always rinse off your dog with water and a mild dog-safe shampoo.

Hide-and-seek. Reinforce your dog’s recall skills by playing this game indoors or in an enclosed outdoor area. Start by getting your dog in a sit-and-stay position. Then, hide and call your dog by using his name and saying, “Come.” Make a big to-do when he finds you and offer praise and small treats. The goal behind this game is to teach your dog that fun things happen when he heeds the “come” cue.

Agility. Dogs are not the only ones who need to be in shape to participate in this popular obstacle course sport. Their human teammates must also be able to turn, pivot and run while offering hand and verbal signals to their dogs to climb ramps, dash through tunnels, leap through tires and wriggle through weave poles.

Dancing dogs. Whether in the privacy of your living room or before a crowd at a canine musical freestyle competition, doing the cha-cha and other dance steps with your canine dance partner offers a fun workout.

Surprise Benefits

When it comes to making your pet your favorite workout buddy, consider this added bonus: Pets that exercise regularly tend to exhibit fewer behavior problems. “They are less likely to chew shoes, scratch furniture, bark excessively or commit other misdeeds because they have appropriate outlets for their energy,” says Dr. Becker.

Ageless Advice

Dogs of all ages need regular exercise to help keep their heart, lungs, joints and digestive and circulatory systems healthier. As pets get older, however, they often need their owners to modify their activity levels. Consider:

  • Rather than taking your senior dog on one brisk, 30-minute walk, switch to two 15-minute walks at a moderate pace — once in the morning and once in the evening — to be less taxing on his aging joints.
  • Swimming can also be a good exercise for older pets, especially if they have arthritis.

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