Having dogs is tremendously beneficial to well-being. Having pets has been shown to reduce depression, increase happiness, and improve your stress response in a variety of different situations. They increase oxytocin, lower blood pressure, and improve your blood lipid profile. Beyond all of these notable benefits, I want to focus on one thing here: owning dogs gives you the opportunity to exercise outside every day.
Researchers have found that there’s something magical about the combination of getting your heart rate up outside that increases BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor – what Harvard psychiatrist, John J. Ratey, MD calls “Miracle-Gro for the brain” in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain), reduces depression, and increases vitamin D (from sunlight). If you are in good shape, you can run with your dog(s). If you are in bad shape, walking with your dog(s) everyday can be a great way to begin building into better shape. My fitbit thinks that I exercise practically everyday and the reason is that I have two dogs that need walking. While simple cardiovascular activity is great for the brain, there’s something specifically about doing your exercising outside that helps with depression and memory as well.
I have found that the best balance of time for results comes when the dogs get two exercise periods of 30-45 minutes a day. That works well because I can split the time up with my wife and we both get the benefits.
My tendency, though, is to try to maximize my time. Here’s how I maximize walking dogs.
- Weekends – do one longer walk in the park or trail with both dogs and my wife. Time together, plus exercise outside is time well spent.
- During the week, split up the walks so my wife does half and I do half of the walks.
- Listen to podcasts using the temptation bundling method. There are podcasts for every interest, from sports, news, ideas, even radio dramas, serials, games, and everything in between. I listen to a huge variety of podcasts and getting an hour to listen (between getting shoes, leashes on, walking, and getting them back off) is fantastic.
- Wear a weighted vest. I use a gradual loading method, starting with just an empty vest and gradually loading it. Each bag in my vest weighs about 3.5 lbs, so what I’ve done is make two smaller sandbags out of play sand, ziplock freezer bags and duct tape so I can increase the load very gradually. I’ve worked up to over 50 lbs at this point. My intention is to load up to about 90 lbs (40 kg) on my walks. This achieves a few different outcomes: first it increases the number of calories I burn on every walk. Calories burned is largely a matter of how much distance you cover and what your body-weight is. Since the distance I cover is largely static, and hopefully my body-weight is going down, not up, adding external resistance is an easy way to keep the calories burned high. This is commonly known as “rucking” and keeps me in shape for backpacking and other outdoor adventures as well. It helps build skeletal density and keeps my legs, back, abs, and even traps (just try it–you’ll see) healthy.
There are other options, of course. You could use a hip-belt for the dog(s) and use small hand-weights using the heavyhands method to get more cardiovascular work and less of a skeletal hit. They make great exercise partners and will ask for a walk when you are tired or feel “too busy” to make time. My dogs always seem to know when it’s time for a walk, and they whine and bark until I take them. If you don’t want to do it, do it for your dogs. A tired dog is a good dog!
Like a lot of things, some days you won’t want to go, but you’ll find that, once you start, your motivation will catch up with your action. This is another example of the mind lagging behind the body. Fake it ‘til you make it. You can’t think your way there, you have to act your way there, and this is a simple way of doing that.