Fun Ways to Exercise with Your Pet
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 or cat.
Regular exercise provides pets and people with physical and mental benefits, according to Dr. M. Christine Zink, a veterinarian and professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “Exercise releases endorphins, feelgood chemicals that provide a sense of well-being. It helps maintain proper weight, improves coordination and balance, and stabilizes joints to prevent arthritis and certain injuries.”
She should know. Dr. Zink, the author of Peak Performance: Coaching the Canine Athlete (Canine Sports Productions), is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on canine sports medicine. She also regularly engages her three dogs in swimming, agility, tracking, fetching, and walking. “My golden retriever is 11, but she looks more like she is 6 or 7, thanks to a lifetime of exercise,” says Dr. Zink.
Playing with a purpose motivated Dr. Marty Becker, veterinary contributor for Good Morning America, and Dr. Robert Kushner, a medical doctor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, to collaborate on a new book, Fitness Unleashed! (Three Rivers Press). Try exercising with your pet. “Results from the People and Pets Exercising Together (P-PET) study show that both owners and their four-legged companions are more successful at sticking with a weight-loss program when they exercise together,” says Dr. Becker.
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 retrieverlike behaviors by insisting on fetching a tennis ball again and again. Dr. 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. Devote 20 to 45 minutes to 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 backwards and move in a circle to work various muscles and enhance flexibility.
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. 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. Consider fitting your dog with a canine life preserver for a measure of safety. When finished, always rinse off your dog with water and a mild 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.
TIPS FOR FELINE FITNESS
Don’t neglect your feline friend at fitness time. “Cats engage in object play—hunting, swatting, and pouncing on a toy or ball—or social play—interacting with family members and other household pets,” explains Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli, an animal behaviorist and clinical assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Massachusetts. “A cat who has been exercised regularly will maintain her level of fitness and physical health as she ages.”
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 up furniture, bark excessively, or commit other misdeeds because they have appropriate outlets for their energy,” says Dr. Becker. “A tired pet is often a happy pet.”
Dogs and cats of all ages need regular exercise to keep their heart, lungs, joints, and digestive and circulatory systems healthy. 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.
Encourage your senior cat to paw at and pounce on a toy for a few minutes at least once a day to work his muscles.
Swimming is also good exercise for older pets, especially if they have arthritis