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 two-and-a-half 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, it improves optimism — it changes the brain structure,” said Philip Tedeschi, a clinical professor and human-animal interaction specialist at the University of Denver.
These ideas make perfect sense to Jessica McMurtrie, an academic administrator and fiddle player from Baltimore, Md., who credits her dogs with motivating her to get outdoors and exercise. McMurtrie and Maybelline, a 6-year-old pitbull, and Buster, a 14-year-old Labrador/Akita mix, exercise together every day, whether they are in a city park during the week, exploring nature at the family cabin in Lost River, WV., or headed out on an adventure to a new location.
“They definitely make me more active since we walk, hike and kayak together,” she said.
Like McMurtrie, 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 Fitbit 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 are not able to 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.
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 said, 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 said.
“Buster and May keep me sane,” said McMurtrie. “They are my family, and my life wouldn’t be complete without them. They make me happy every day.”