I often discuss the importance of aerobic exercise for furry family members here at Mercola Healthy Pets. Regular heart-thumping physical activity will help your cat or dog to achieve and stay at a healthy body weight, build muscle mass, maintain the integrity of the musculoskeletal system, and resolve boredom and unwanted behaviors that result from inactivity. If you’re looking for ways to get your canine companion moving, did you know you can exercise him aerobically with regular power walks? And as a bonus, you’ll get a good workout as well!
Walking for Fitness is Different
Walking your dog to achieve aerobic fitness is different from what I call the sniff-piddle-dawdle dog walk.
In other words, it’s not a leisurely stroll.
It involves putting your dog on his leash and getting him moving fast enough to elevate his heart rate into the fat-and-calorie-burning zone.
At the same time – especially if your pup is out of shape and overweight – you need to be careful not to push him too hard, too soon, or risk injury.
On the flip side, if your dog is in good shape with energy to burn, you want to make sure you don’t walk so fast you move from aerobic to anaerobic (sugar-burning) exercise.
If your pet isn’t used to strenuous exercise, is older, obese, has a condition that makes movement difficult, or for any other reason might be at risk during exercise, I strongly recommend you have him checked out by your vet before embarking on an ambitious fitness program.
Three Tips to Get the Most from Your Dog Power Walks
Start strong. After you’ve allowed your pet to void his colon and bladder, begin your power walking sessions by getting the hard part over with first. If you start slow and allow a bit of the sniff-piddle-dawdle thing, it might be difficult to really get your pup moving for the remainder of the walk. Set the expectation for your pet that the ‘power’ part of your walk starts right from the front door, with pee and sniff stops allowed only toward the end of your walk.
Also, if your dog is healthy, there’s no need for a warm-up. Only an older or very heavy dog, or one with movement difficulties or a medical condition needs a warm-up (five minutes of warm-up walking should do it) before increasing the pace and intensity of the workout.
Set a brisk pace. The average dog-walking pace is around a mile every 25 minutes. That speed isn’t fast enough to achieve an aerobic state. At the right pace, your dog should appear to be trotting along next to you, with a short stride and rapid leg turnover.
In order to achieve a good brisk pace, hold the leash so there is slack on your dog’s end. If your dog does not allow slack in the leash (in other words, if he pulls), please use a harness instead of a collar to prevent neck damage. Since you’ll be the one setting the pace, pick a speed you can comfortably move at – something between 15 and 20 minutes per mile. You should feel like you’re taking an invigorating walk. If you’re lightly sweating you’re probably moving at a good pace.
Your dog will pant – that’s normal. But there should be no labored or noisy breathing or coughing. If your pet seems to be struggling, stop or slow down and rest her. If you’re concerned that this is a new or unexpected result of exercise, make sure to check in with your veterinarian.
Develop a weekly routine. If your dog is generally healthy and you have limited time to exercise, a 20 to 30 minute walk at least five times a week is the way to go. If you keep your outings to 20 minutes, you’ll need to keep a brisk pace the entire time. If you stay out for 30 minutes, you can allow your pet a bit of leisurely sniffing and peeing after 20 minutes at a fat-burning pace.
If you have more time, you can extend your power walking to 30-35 minutes per session, ending with a 10 to 15 minute stroll. If you’re interested in taking even longer walks with your pet, you can set distance and time goals, for example, completing a mile in 15 minutes or two miles in 30 minutes.
As long as your pet is healthy and has no problem keeping up with you for a half-hour or longer, there’s really no way to overdo your power walks. The vast majority of pets today are under exercised. A dog who consistently arrives home tired from a heart-thumping power walk is very likely a calm, fit, easy-going four-legged companion.
If your dog is out of shape and tires at the 10 minute mark, simply add a minute every week until you’re at your desired time.
Help! My Dog Just Doesn’t Get It …
Some dogs who have been conditioned to expect only sniff-piddle-dawdle walks will balk at attempts to get them to pick up the pace and keep up the pace.
I have found that most of my patients understand the difference between the “dawdle walk” and the “cardio walk” after about a week of the new routine.
If your dog is uncooperative with your efforts to get him moving at a brisk pace – if he sits or refuses to budge – take a look at Walking Your Dog: How to Do It Well and Why It’s So Important.