News flash: Dogs are good for you. Last month, the American Heart Association released a report in its journal Circulation—the result of an expert panel's thorough literature review—listing the benefits of pet ownership on human heart health. It concluded that 1) pet ownership is probably associated with a reduction in heart disease risk factors; 2) owning pets may be associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a lower incidence of obesity; 3) pets can have a positive effect on the body's reactions to stress; and 4) dog ownership, in particular, may help reduce cardiovascular risk.
All of that was great news for dog owners and helped confirm what many of us have always known on a gut level—dogs really are a human's best friends. But what's perhaps more exciting is that, beyond these more or less passive fringe health benefits of dogs, research also shows that they can be awesome fitness companions and workout pals, too. "Exercising with your pet is a win-win," says Tricia Montgomery, founder of K9 Fit Club, a Hinsdale, Illinois-based fitness club for dog owners that's currently expanding to 31 locations nationwide. "The best way to stick with a workout program is having a partner who's not going to cancel on you. A dog is always excited to go, he's never going to cancel and he's happiest when he's by your side." In other words, that wagging tail may just be the motivation an owner needs to turn fitness into a routine.
And studies confirm Montgomery's argument. A Michigan State University study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health found that people with canine companions are 34 percent more likely to get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week than are people with other pets or none at all. The study also found that owning a dog promotes health and fitness even after you take your pup for a stroll, increasing leisure-time physical activity by 69 percent.
In a three-month study by the University of Missouri, older adults who walked dogs showed a big improvement in fitness over their counterparts who walked with human friends, and even increased their walking speed by 28 percent. The reason? "Dogs don't make excuses," says lead researcher Dr. Rebecca A. Johnson, director of U of M's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, and co-author of Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound: How You and Your Dog Can Lose Weight, Stay Fit, and Have Fun Together.
In another University of Missouri study, people who began walking dogs burned off an average of 14 pounds over the course of a year, a number that Johnson notes "is more weight loss than is promised by most nationally-known diet plans."
In the end, maybe the results of all these studies is predictable. It makes sense that your four-legged friend—who's part cheerleader and part drill sergeant—will be a great fitness companion. He's always eager to exercise, and expects nothing more than a pat on the head or scratch on the belly for putting you through your daily paces. We asked experts like Montgomery and Johnson for their favorite ways to get fit with their dogs, and came up with this fun list of 12.