Looking for the perfect fitness buddy? Your best friend may not always be available, but man's best friend never says no to a little exercise — and that's not just because dogs can't talk.
Most dogs enjoy (and need) exercise and look forward to it as part of their otherwise leisurely daily routine. Depending on the breed, most dogs need about 45 minutes to an hour and a half of exercise each day, says Grisha Stewart, a certified Seattle-based dog trainer. "It's much better for the dog to be jogging along or walking along than just fetching," Stewart says. "Running can calm them down more." And those exercise benefits don't just extend to your pup. "If you're walking briskly, it also can help you stay in shape."
There's a lot of evidence to support Stewart's claim. Having a pet can encourage owners to be more active, according to findings from a University of Missouri-Columbia study. Research participants walked with a dog on a regular, graduated schedule for a year until they were up to walking 20 minutes a day, five days a week. By the end, the weight loss was nothing to bark at — a solid average of 14 pounds per person.
In another study, obese people who tried losing weight with their overweight dogs lost an average of 11 pounds in one year, while the dogs lost about 16 percent of their body weight. The study, conducted by Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Wellness Institute, cited the companionship, motivation, and social support dogs provide as key in helping owners slim down.
"When you make a commitment to your dog, it creates a commitment to yourself," says Nancy Clark, a certified pet dog trainer and member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. "It's a 'have to.' You have to get out and exercise that dog; therefore, you get the exercise yourself."
Almost any dog will be a good walking companion, but you could also try different activities, based on your dog's breed. And don't worry if you don't have a pooch of your own; loaner dogs can be found in cities ranging from Maui, HI, to Beaver Creek, CO. Check with your local animal shelter to see if they offer a "borrowing" program for the day — a win-win for you and the lucky dog.
Running: Australian shepherd, Dalmatians
High-energy dogs needs vigorous exercise to stay in shape. Shepherds, especially, are easy to train and have been bred to feel most fulfilled when they have a job to perform (like herding livestock or protecting children), so they'll love being your official jogging partner. Other large dogs that need lots of exercise to remain healthy are great to take for a run or even rollerblading; small dogs are usually better suited to short walks.
And remember: If you get a dog that likes to run, you should like to run. "A prospective owner should get a dog that wants the same amount of exercise that they want," says Stewart, who also recommends using a front-attachment harness to better keep control of your pet while jogging.
Swimming: Newfoundland, Labrador retrievers, poodles
With a water-resistant coat, webbed feet and a natural instinct for water rescue, the giant, shaggy-haired Newfoundland makes a great swimming buddy. Whatever dog you have, though, make sure he likes water and never force him to swim — every dog is different, even those that are considered born swimmers. For extra safety precautions in case a dog panics in deep water, invest in a doggy life jacket. They look much like the life vest humans wear, and they can be purchased for around $20 to $50.
Yoga: Beagle, Jack Russell terriers, bloodhounds
Believe it or not, dogs can do yoga — called "doga" for the canine set. Gyms in cities across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, offer classes for flexible pets and their owners. According to Brenda Bryan, who teaches a class in Seattle called Yoga with Your Dog, yogis and dogis love stretching alongside one another. "For dogs, it's a really nice opportunity to spend time with their person," she says. "For the people, yoga is, in general, a nice way to get to know your own body."
And in the same way that yoga is relaxing for humans, canines also take time to calm down and de-stress. "Almost all the dogs mellow out, even the dogs that seem to be a little bit more rowdy," Bryan says. "For anyone, dog or human, you're relaxing for an hour; you're spending time in a positive environment. It certainly can't hurt."
Hiking: Golden retriever, Doberman pinschers, German shepherds
Practically any dog will enjoy a good hike in the great outdoors, but the ideal ones to take along will easily be able to maneuver obstacles and will have enough stamina to keep up. Clark recommends "bigger dogs that aren't running on their short little legs, trying to keep up with you." Not everyone is a fan of Fido on the trails, though, so make sure your dog is well-behaved and always on a leash. And yes, you will have to pick up and hike out any droppings your prized pooch leaves behind.
Skijoring: Siberian husky, Alaskan malamutes, German shorthaired pointers
Strap on your skis and get ready to glide across the snow with your dog as the lead. Sound intimidating? It's actually a relatively easy sport to pick up. "All you need are some cross-country skis and a harness, and you're good to go," says Tren Long, president of the Bogus Skijoring Club in Boise, ID. Skijoring has been popular in Alaska for years, and it's recently had a surge in popularity in the Lower 48. Participants in this sport say the dogs love it. "My dog goes nuts," Long attests. "In the winter, if I leave the house without taking her, she'll give me that pouty face."
And you can make the workout as easy or as challenging as you like. Start with flat ground and a short distance. If you really want to get your blood pumping, try hills and breaking your own trail. Northern breeds such as huskies like to pull and can handle the cold, but many dogs — as long as they're at least 35 pounds and are able to comfortably pull you — can be trained for this sport on an amateur level.