Join a gym — or get a dog?

A new US study finds yet more evidence that pet ownership is good for your heart — in more ways than one.

People who own dogs are about 34 per cent more likely to get the recommended minimum amount of exercise each week, according to researchers from Michigan State University (MSU).

“Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity available to people,” study author Matthew Reeves, associate professor of epidemiology at MSU, said in a release. “What we wanted to know was if dog owners who walked their dogs were getting more physical activity or if the dog-walking was simply a substitute for other forms of activity.”

Reeves and his team found that not only did owning and walking a dog increase the amount of walking a person does but also that dog walkers were more active overall.

“Obviously you would expect dog walkers to walk more, but we found people who walked their dog also had higher overall levels of both moderate and vigorous physical activities,” Reeves said. “There appears to be a strong link between owning and walking a dog and achieving higher levels of physical activity, even after accounting for the actual dog walking.”

For the study, published in the March issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, researchers reviewed data from the 2005 Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Survey that included responses from almost 6,000 people.

Current guidelines say that adults over the age of 18 should get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week. (Here’s how you can sneak more exercise into your day.)

Perks of pet ownership

Research has long shown that the joy of companionship is only one benefit of having a pet in the family. In addition to making great exercise partners, having a pet can produce a myriad of healthy benefits. Studies have shown, for instance, that dog owners are generally healthier overall than non-pet owners, and having a pet helps to lower stress, blood pressure and cholesterol. And dogs can even warn of cancer, heart attack, epileptic seizures and hypoglycemia. Cat owners also get a healthy boost thanks to their furry companions, experts say. (Read more about the health benefits of having a companion animal.)

Tips for getting fit with Fido

Have a dog, but not getting as much exercise as you’d like? Remember, the healthy benefits of physical activity extend to both ends of the leash: it’s good for you and your dog. If you’ve fallen into the habit of simply opening the back door to let your dog out, here are some tips to get moving.

– Start slow. Like us, our pets need to work up to being fit, especially if they are overweight. Carrying extra pounds puts additional strain on joints, muscles, and the heart and respiratory system. (For older or overweight dogs, as well as puppies, you may want to start by visiting your veterinarian for a physical examination and ask for advice on a safe workout regimen for you and your pet.)

– Pack plenty of water for both you and your dog. You may want to check out portable water bottles designed especially for pets, such as The Thirsty Dog Pet Portable Water Bowl. It’s important to stay hydrated, especially on hot days when heat stroke can happen suddenly, and be fatal.

– Pay attention to paws. Just as you need to be equipped with proper walking shoes, make sure your pet’s paws are not being hurt by hard or hot pavement. In the winter, you’ll want to watch for ice salt, which can be painful for exposed paws.

– For extra motivation, schedule walks with fellow dog-owners. Experts say that we’re more likely to keep to a daily exercise regimen if it’s a scheduled activity. Another bonus: more social time for you and Fido!

– In addition to walking or jogging, ball catching is another fun way to give your dog exercise. But make sure you get some too — don’t just throw the ball and wait for your dog to retrieve it; instead run with along with your dog and pretend you’re in competition to get to the ball first.

– Ready to hit the bike trail? Be cautious if you’re biking with your dog. It’s a common perception that dogs are born to run, but depending on your dog’s physical condition and fitness level this may not be the case. While a miles-long bike ride on a flat surface is manageable for many people, running that distance is another matter all together. If you do bike with your dog, be alert for any signs of doggy distress such as panting or lagging — and stop to rest and hydrate in a shady spot, if necessary.

– Don’t forget your stretches! After all, the yoga stretch “Downward Dog” is inspired by a dog’s pose of “tail up and paws forward” stretch movement.

Sources: Michigan State University news release; Journal of Physical Activity and Health; HealthDay News; New York Times; American Kennel Association; British Journal of Health Psychology; Canadian Veterinary Medical Association; MunFitness

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