In the United States, more than 75 million people have a canine companion in their home. Dogs are not just cute creatures that welcome us home and help us with the leftovers, they also positively contribute to our longevity and quality of life. As the winter thaws and temperatures start to rise, it's the perfect time to truly appreciate all the positives our four-legged friends are bringing to our lives and health.
Dogs have a two-fold effect on our well-being. On the one hand, they promote emotional well-being by reducing anxiety and stress (petting your dog can help you feel calmer and more relaxed throughout the day) and by increasing social engagement by encouraging encounters with other pet owners. But they do much more than that. Because dogs need regular exercise for their own physical and mental well-being, dog owners tend to be more physically active as well as they join their companion on walks, trips to the park, or even just more trips to the door to let their buddy outside to play.
When you combine the psychological and physical advantages of having a dog, they add up to huge benefits in disease prevention and quality of life including significantly lower heart rates, blood pressure, and cardiovascular health than people living in non-dog households. These positive effects result in dog owners living longer, on average, and making fewer doctor visits than people without a dog at home.
Having a dog is a wonderful setup for both the owner and the dog. Yes, there are many benefits to owning a dog, but when properly cared for your pooch will thank you for the exercise as well. Walking your dog introduces them (and you) to new sights and smells, without which dogs can become bored, which can lead to destructive behaviors if left unchecked. Regular walks also promote digestion in dogs which can help with GI health, and just like in humans, lack of physical activity in dogs can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance, and other metabolic disorders.
You might be skeptical that something as simple as walking your dog can lead to positive health outcomes in humans, but studies have shown us that walking is a great way to get in the 150 minutes of exercise recommended to us by the CDC each day. Walking is very accessible to people when other activities may not be. People with back, knee, or ankle problems that prevent them from going to the gym may be able to enjoy low-intensity exercise, such as walking. People who are overweight or obese may feel more comfortable starting off with walking rather than rush into a full-blown exercise program, especially with a four-legged friend to help motivate them. Another huge benefit is that aside from a supportive pair of sneakers, walking is practically free and available at any time. Just like with other forms of exercise, walking can make our muscles and bones stronger, increase muscular endurance, increase energy levels, and improve your mood. The benefits of walking are incredibly far reaching. People who participated in a moderate walking program even reported an increase in their creativity and showed more creative output.
Getting started is as easy as making a plan. Start off slow with 10-15 minutes and increase weekly until you and your dog find a good rhythm. You can invite the whole family or friends to help increase your accountability and socialize at the same time. Once you and your dog start to get stronger and healthier, try increasing the intensity for either you or your dog by increasing the pace, finding some hills to walk up, or adding wrist and ankle weights for you or a weighted vest for your dog. If your dog is miles ahead of you in the fitness game, try finding them a nearby dog park that you can walk to. You can rest while Fido is playing his heart out, and then join him for the walk back.
As the weather warms up, always make sure you check in with your dog and yourself to avoid dehydration, exhaustion, or overheating. Always bring water for you and your pupper on longer warmer walks. Make frequent shade stops on hot days and check the temperature of the concrete to make sure it’s not burning your dog’s paws on really hot days.
Think of it this way, what’s good for the dog is good for the human. If you are being careful to provide your pooch with the amount of exercise, outdoor time, high quality and nutritious food, attention, cuddles, and pets that they need to thrive, then you are also giving your own health a major boost. No wonder dogs are people’s best friends!
Interested in adopting a four-legged fitness pal? Our friends at Heartland German Shepherd Rescue work to rescue, rehabilitate, and place the dogs they save in permanent, loving homes. For more information or other way to help, visit www.heartlandgsrescue.org.
“Walk Your Way to Fitness.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 19 May 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/walking/art-20046261.
Siemens, Jordan. “Why Walking Is the Most Underrated Form of Exercise.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 4 May 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/why-walking-most-underrated-form-exercise-ncna797271.
Suttie, Jill Suttie Jill. “The Science-Backed Benefits of Being a Dog Owner.” Greater Good, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_science_backed_benefits_of_being_a_dog_owner.
“Overcoming Barriers to Physical Activity.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 Feb. 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adding-pa/barriers.html.