Dog Walking for Your Health
In the days before insulin was developed, the pioneering diabetes researcher Elliott Joslin, MD, regularly prescribed a treatment for diabetes that cost virtually nothing, required no special gear, and was easy to do. The Rx: a trip to the nearby dog shelter, where his patients could enlist a four-legged walking buddy.
Joslin had always encouraged his patients to be more active, and he knew that a dog could help them stick with a walking regimen by turning something they needed to do (exercise) into something they wanted to do (spend time with a dog). Studies have since proven what Joslin, founder of the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, knew 100 years ago: Dogs are excellent exercise buddies.
“They’re always ready to go. They’re nonjudgmental. They never criticize your walking gear or make excuses why they don’t want to walk,” says Rebecca Johnson, PhD, RN, FAAN, FNAP, professor and director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine. One of Johnson’s studies found that people who walked with a dog increased their speed by 28 percent over 12 weeks, while those who walked with a friend were only 4 percent faster. In another study, overweight participants who walked with a dog for 20 minutes a day, five days a week, for a year lost an average of 14 pounds. “A dog is a strong motivator for walking,” she says. “People want to help the dog get exercise, whether it’s their own dog, a shelter dog, or someone else’s dog.”
Moderate amounts of aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, boost energy, fight excess pounds, and protect your heart. For people with diabetes, there’s also this benefit: Regularly hitting the pavement for at least 150 minutes per week—the amount recommended by the American Diabetes Association’s 2017 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes—reduces insulin resistance and substantially lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and early death. Studies show it also helps control blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes. “Every time you move your muscles, you contract them—and muscle contraction increases glucose uptake, which means you’re improving your glucose control independently, without insulin, just by exercising,” says Jacqueline Shahar, MEd, RCEP, CDE, manager of the Clinical Exercise Physiology Department at the Joslin Diabetes Center.
Ready, Set, Walk
Before you make any big changes to your exercise regimen, get the okay from your health care provider. Then work together to set a goal for daily steps and map out a strategy for reaching it—whether you have a dog or not. “Some studies suggest exercising early in the morning to get it out of the way,” says Shahar. “Others say you should walk after dinner so you can improve post-meal blood glucose levels. Regardless of when you do it, it’s beneficial. Pick a time that’s convenient; otherwise, you won’t stick with it.”
Not sure how many steps to log when just beginning? Try this: “For three days, wear a device such as a pedometer to track your number of steps,” says Richard Peng, MS, MBA, RCEP, CDE, a clinical exercise physiologist and certified diabetes educator with HealthCare Partners Medical Group in Los Angeles and author of Exercise Manual: An Exercise Guide for Adults With Diabetes. “Then take an average of those three days, and that’s your starting point.”
Try to increase your steps by at least 10 percent per week, suggests Peng, with the ultimate goal of 10,000 steps—or five miles—per day. If you’re just beginning, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends starting slowly and increasing daily steps gradually to stay motivated and avoid overuse injuries. Also, pay attention to your breath. You should be able to comfortably carry on a conversation as you walk.
To boost your chances of sticking with a walking routine, schedule it. After a few outings, your dog will hold you to it. “Dogs have an innate ability to recognize when it’s time to do something,” says Johnson. “They’re creatures of habit.”
Soon enough, yours just might make you one, too.
Old Dog, New Trick?
Make sure your pooch is healthy enough to pound the pavement
Almost all dogs are capable of walking around the block at a brisk pace, says Ernie Ward, DVM, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention and author of Chow Hound: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter. To make sure your pup is fit, your vet should examine your dog thoroughly once a year for any underlying cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems, and osteoarthritis—those are among the biggest problems that limit physical activity.
Keep these tips in mind to make sure your pooch can go the distance:
- Schedule your walk for early morning or after sunset. Dogs can’t sweat (they pant to cool down), so the best time to walk outdoors during hot months is the morning or evening, when temperatures are cooler.
- Take along enough water for two. A typical 20- to 40-pound dog needs about 6 ounces of water every half hour, says Ward.
- Plan your route with Rover in mind. Multiple short walks a day may be best if you have a very young, very old, or physically challenged dog.