By Maura McAndrew
We’ve all heard that regular exercise is one of the keys to a long and healthy life. But particularly if you’re older, it can be hard to take that first step toward healthier living—and even harder to stay motivated. Need help? Look no further than your canine companion. “Dogs are good accountability partners,” says Dr. Susan Nelson, DVM, and clinical associate professor at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Even when you don’t feel like exercising, it’s hard to ignore those big, pleading eyes.”
Ready to take that first step? With the help of our guide, you can embark upon a fitness plan together with these simple tips.
Before you begin any exercise program, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor for a check-up. And don’t forget about your dog—Fido needs a wellness check, too. “One of the first steps is to schedule a check-up for your dog with your veterinarian,” Nelson advises. “You want to make sure they are healthy enough to do the type of activities you plan on doing.” While you’re there, make sure your pup is up-to-date on vaccinations to prepare for any excursions to the dog park. And don’t be afraid to ask for advice: your doctor and your veterinarian can offer exercise recommendations tailored to you and your pet.
Particularly for seniors, it’s important to start simple and work your way up to more vigorous activities. Take the advice of Melissa Morrison of Fur Fitness, a Southern California company that combats pet obesity with exercise and nutrition. “What I tell my clients is, you have to make a commitment of 30 minutes a day,” she says. As long as your dog is healthy, “start with a 30-minute walk, very calmly. No running or jogging or anything. And just slowly let them get used to the elements, let them sniff, kind of let them take the lead.” We often forget that dogs can get seriously out of shape too, and we push them too hard too fast, which can result in serious injury.
Once you’ve taken time to establish that non-negotiable daily walk, you can build from there. Try increasing to two walks, and if you’d like, eventually speed up to a jog. But there’s no rush or imperative to quicken your pace a long, slow walk can be immensely rewarding, both physically and mentally. “I work with a lot of overweight dogs, so I stress that you’ve got to go slow,” Morrison says. “But that mental clarity that they get just from being outside and that one-on-one time with you is so important.”
Yes, it’s true: nature is the best gym. According to The New York Times, a number of recent studies have revealed that people who exercise outside do so more frequently, have lower levels of cortisol (a hormone linked to stress), and report feeling happier and less tired. Not to mention that dogs sure seem to like the outdoors. “It’s a great de-stressor,” Morrison says. “I look down at my dog’s face, and she’s so excited to be outside.” Taking a hike with your dog is also a great way to turn that daily walk into a more rigorous workout. “As both you and your dog get into better condition, you may add walks or hikes that include some hills,” Nelson suggests. Try hiking in different areas to mix it up—it’ll allow you and your pooch to take in new sights and smells. “Nobody wants to be stuck behind four walls,” Morrison says. “Everybody wants to see what’s going on in the world, and it’s no different for dogs.”
When starting your exercise program, it’s important to plan ahead. If hiking, have a route planned and a phone for emergencies. When travelling to remote areas, always let someone know where you are your dog are going and what time you expect to be back. Also consider the weather. Nelson emphasizes that “one should always avoid exercising during the heat of the day in an attempt to avoid heat exhaustion.” Make sure you have appropriate, comfortable clothing for all seasons and plenty of sunscreen.
Worried about your dog’s safety in cold temperatures? Never fear—with the proper gear, you and your pup can frolic in the January snow. Nelson suggests “Booties and sweaters or jackets” for at least some dogs “to protect their feet and keep them warm.” This goes for you as well—warm clothing and proper footwear (with good tread for ice and snow) will keep your fitness routine going strong through the winter. And you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: water, water, water. In any weather, hydration is a must for both man and beast.
It’s tough to maintain an active lifestyle if you loathe exercise. “Don’t do it as a chore,” Morrison says. “I’m a big believer in making it fun.” She suggests engaging dogs in ball or puzzle games, which can be moved indoors in bad weather. Nelson adds, “If your dog needs to burn energy, you can give them extra exercise by playing fetch, or even throwing a Frisbee for them to return.” While fetch is better exercise for dogs than humans, chasing or running with your dog during play is a fun cardiovascular workout—try it on a hill for a greater challenge. Playing fetch at a lake or pond can also indulge your pup’s affection for all things aquatic. “Most dogs like water once they’re used to it,” Morrison says, “and it’s really low-impact on their joints.” Combine this lake trip with a hike, and you’ve got a varied exercise plan for all.
When you’re just starting out, be careful not to push yourself too hard. Everyone has his/her own pace, and your wellbeing takes top priority. According to Nelson, dogs that begin to lag behind, pant heavily, and drool are likely experiencing fatigue. Likewise, if your dog is limping, reluctant to move, or “whining and possibly biting” when you attempt to move him or her, they are probably experiencing significant pain. Make an appointment with your veterinarian if your dog’s fatigue or pain doesn’t resolve over the course of a few days.
Take frequent breaks, and “never force a dog to do an activity that they may be scared to do or physically unable to do,” Nelson warns. Morrison agrees. “Just take it slow,” she advises. “Dogs can pull ligaments just like we can, and they can get tired.” Stretching before and after exercise is key for humans, and if your pup is the Zen type, you can even try some Doga to cool down.
Starting an exercise plan isn’t easy, and there will be the occasional setback. But the value of a sharing a healthier lifestyle with your beloved pet is worth it. “Exercising with your dog strengthens your muscles and cardiovascular system,” Nelson says, “but it also strengthens the bond between you and your pet.”