I know I have my four Westies to thank for keeping me on track with my daily exercise. But if you don’t have a dog of your own, try getting a part-time job with a dog-walking service such as my friend Cathy Menard’s The Urban Dog. Look at it this way, if you join a gym, they won’t pay you to exercise!—Sid

Dog walkers have 6 feet, 1 goal

Dog walkers are discovering that daily hikes with Fido can help keep them fit.

Mary Shore took her dog Kaylee, for her daily walk on a loop along the river and over the Stone Arch Bridge.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Mary Shore doesn’t have to worry about getting so distracted that she forgets to take her daily walk. Kaylee will never allow it.

Shore, a professor at Luther Seminary, takes a 40-minute walk every day with her spaniel-sheltie mix. Depending on her schedule, sometimes they walk in the morning and sometimes at lunch. But if they haven’t done it by late afternoon, Kaylee “starts running up and down the stairs looking for me.”

Once they get outside, “Kaylee sets the pace, and it’s a brisk one,” Shore said during one of the twosome’s daily treks across the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. “But that’s fine. It’s good for both of us.”

She’s far from the only one exercising with her dog these days. There have been a flood of recent studies confirming that people who own dogs exercise more than people who don’t.

A recent Michigan State University study found that dog walkers exercise an average of 30 minutes a week more than non-dog-owners. And a University of Calgary study released in May said dog walkers keep walking even when it’s cold, although they might shorten the length of their trips.

The benefits carry beyond just the time the walkers are with Fido. A California study found that dog walkers spend an extra 19 minutes a week walking without their four-legged companions. And a University of Missouri project of residents of an assisted-living center who volunteered to walk dogs at a nearby shelter found that their overall walking speed increased 28 percent over the 12 weeks of the study, said Rebecca Johnson, lead author of the study.

“They also developed a more confident stride and better balance,” said Johnson, who is also co-author of the book “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” ($16.95, Purdue University Press).

Getting an exercise buddy is a long-proven way to maintain a workout regimen. And when it comes to exercise buddies, man’s best friend is always ready for the job.

“A dog actually thinks that exercising is fun,” said Phil Zeltzman, a veterinarian who co-wrote the book with Johnson.

A wagging tail is a great motivator for getting people moving. Just ask Michael Belaen.

In addition to working for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, he’s also going to law school. But when he gets home from work, the rest of his schedule is put on hold because his dog is waiting anxiously for its daily walk around Shady Oak Lake.

“My girlfriend and I both rely heavily on our cockapoo, Maya, to make us healthy,” he said. “She definitely makes sure that we get our exercise in.”

Do it together

Going out with your dog is healthier for the pet, too, said Zeltzman. One of the myths of dog ownership is that leaving a dog in a fenced-in yard fulfills its exercise requirements.

“Dogs are pack animals, which means that they don’t like to exercise alone,” he said. “Dogs are excited to be outside, so when you let them out, they start running around. That’s all most people see. But if you keep watching, you’ll discover that after about five minutes, the dogs quit running around. They just sit there. They’re not getting any exercise.”

Beyond the health reasons, studies about dog-walking have found all sorts of side benefits, Johnson said. For instance, neighborhoods with a lot of dog walkers tend to have less crime.

Then, of course, there are the obvious advantages: Dog-walking is a low-impact activity that can be adjusted to suit the limitations of both human and pet, it can be done just about anywhere and you don’t need special equipment or a gym membership.

It also can serve as recuperation. When she was diagnosed with lupus and fibromyalgia in 2007, Ann Bouvette’s doctor prescribed 60 minutes of Bella a day.

“Bella is a mutt, but she’s the best dog around and has been a big part of my recovery,” said Bouvette, who lives in Clear Lake. “Bella loves our walks and knows that we are going when I put on my sunscreen, long-sleeve shirt and floppy hat. Having her get so excited for a walk helps me to get excited for it, as well.”

No one is recommending getting a dog just for the exercise benefits. Having a pet is a commitment, Shore underscored.

“Both my husband and I had dogs when we were kids, but we talked about this before we got Kaylee” two years ago, she said. “I was specifically looking for a dog that I could walk with, but owning a dog is a lot of work.”

Johnson said that a dog can do one thing that no piece of exercise gear can ever accomplish, no matter how sophisticated or expensive it is: Give you complete and unconditional support.

“Your treadmill doesn’t love you,” she said.

Advertisements