Many of us have heard how dogs and other pets are good for our health. They can improve our moods, ease anxiety and help manage depression. Some studies say dogs even help with problems like high blood pressure.
Several studies have shown that dogs can also help us adopt, and keep healthier fitness levels.
According to a study led by epidemiologist Matthew Reeves at Michigan State University, people who walk dogs are 34 percent more likely to meet national physical activity guidelines than people who don't.
The study, of more than 5,000 people, looked at how much leisure-time physical activity the average person gets. Public health standards say people should spend at least 150 minutes each week running, walking, dancing, playing sports or gardening to stay in good health.
Fewer than half of Americans actually reach that level, said Reeves. But it looks like owning and walking a dog are a good start.
"There is no magic bullet in getting people to reach these benchmarks," Reeves said. "But owning and walking a dog has a measurable impact."
It seems being "a dog person" can also help make you more of a "fitness person." In Reeves' study, people who walked their dogs were also more likely to dance, garden and play sports. On average, this meant they got an extra 30 minutes of exercise per week.
So why not let your exercise go to the dogs?
Laura Cartwright Hardy, a dog-owning grandmother in Little Rock, Arkansas, totally agrees. "They certainly keep you honest about walking," Hardy said. "Those big brown eyes make it impossible to say no."
Hardy says her dogs have kept her fit in other ways, too. She began lifting weights in her 30s so that she could handle her German Shepherds' giant bags of dog food.
To get the most out of dog-walking for exercise, you need to clock at least 150 minutes a week, or about 22 minutes a day of good solid walking. This should get easier to achieve as you and your dog get in better shape.
But why limit your activity to just walking? Shirley Archer, a Florida fitness teacher who's also a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, says dogs can help you unleash all kinds of creative exercise options. "Frisbee tossing, ball throwing, agility competitions, dog and human boot camps, all are great opportunities to be active."
And of course, most dogs are happy to be active. They're made to be that way, in fact. The more activity you share with your dog, the tighter your bond. You're part of the pack. And leading the way in activity can also help make you the leader of the pack.
Don't forget a trip to the vet
A good vet evaluation is always important before changing your dog's lifestyle. The veterinarian will want to evaluate your dog for any heart, lung or other health problems. It's also important to check for arthritis or other disease. A dog with problem joints or ligaments may need lower-impact exercise.