A woman and her dog get exercise by going for a walk outside.

The Benefits of Exercise as a New Year’s Resolution for Pets and People

Many people are happy to welcome in the year 2021 after a long and isolating 2020. The pandemic has allowed many people and pets to increase their outdoor physical activity and focus on personal wellness, which is amazing. However, on the flip side, many have remained isolated inside together at home; enjoying each other’s company but possibly consuming more calories than necessary. With more people working at home, pets may be getting more attention (and food) than they were previously used to. It is not too late to consider a News Years resolution for pet parent and pet focusing on healthy eating habits and exercise!

According to a study by German et al in 2017 (1), canine obesity is now the number one health concern in dogs worldwide and overweight dogs exercise less frequently and for shorter periods than their lean dog friends. Although this is information is not too surprising, it is important to identify what factors impact how and why people exercise their pets. In the study, it was determined that dogs that exercised less than once per day and those that exercised for less than one hour per time, were more likely to be obese. However, very little information is available on what the exercise requirements are for various dog breeds. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), the United States Department of Agriculture and the United Kingdom Kennel Club all have exercise recommendations for dogs that vary between 30-60 minutes total daily.

A german shepherd running in a snowy field.

An interesting study from the United Kingdom performed in 2017 (2), determined that there are variations in the activity levels amongst dogs of different breeds, which again is not too surprising. A chihuahua probably doesn’t need to exercise as much as a Labrador retriever. What was interesting about this study, was that approximately half the participants didn’t achieve the required exercise requirements at all for their breed. Sadly, there is a similar statistic in people; roughly only 50% of the population of the USA achieves the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week.

Another interesting study performed in 2016 determined that including mild physical activity in a weight loss program for dogs, lead to transcriptional changes in genes involved in glucose-transport pathway in muscle and fat tissues(3). This was an important study to support exercise as an inclusion in the management of canine obesity. It’s not just that exercise helps with daily caloric consumption, but that it leads to changes in genes. Another study by Vitger et al determined that physical activity helps to prevent lean body mass compared with caloric restrictions alone when added to a weight loss program(4). Lean body mass is what veterinarians strive for when recommending weight loss; lose the fat and preserve lean muscle!

Two people in a winter season forest, walking a pug.

Even with the state of the pandemic, it appears that there is no time like the present to get outside and walk with your dog! There is a lot of information regarding the benefits of dog walking to human mental health, and certainly with the COVID 19 pandemic, dog walking is an accessible, safe, and achievable daily activity.

Top 5 Things to Consider When Starting an Exercise Program for Dogs

1. Create realistic goals but be specific! For instance, by the end of 2021, my dog and I would like to walk 30 minutes daily together. For cats, it could be something such as playing together with a laser pointer daily for 10 minutes.

2. Start slow. You can’t learn to run a marathon overnight! If you don’t walk your dog often, start with one 10–15-minute walk, 4-5 times weekly. Add 5 minutes per week until you reach the desired length.

3. Consistency can help. Consider walking at the same time every day. Routine can be helpful.

4. Consider an activity monitor for you and/or your pet. There are so many cool devices that can help motivate people and their pets to exercise. Some devices will even remind you if you are inactive for a period.

5. Reward yourself and your pet! (and it doesn’t have to be a food reward!) A reward could be walking or hiking to a new location or playing with a new toy. Do not be afraid of setbacks. Walking and exercising in the winter in Canada has it challenges. Changing the type of activity on those days is totally fine. Be creative! Create an obstacle course in the basement. Walk up and down the stairs. Play fetch.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your family veterinarian for help! A study published in 2020 suggested that veterinary prescribed physical activity promoted improved physical activity in dogs and people (5)! Veterinarians and registered veterinary technicians can help determine your pets ideal body weight and give valuable advice on how this can be effectively accomplished.

Two people walking through a winter forest walking a pug.

Resources Cited:

  1. Emily Blackwell , Mark Evans and Carri Westgarth. Overweight dogs exercise less frequently and for shorter periods: results of a large online survey of dog owners Journal of Nutritional Science (2017), vol. 6, e11, page 1 of 4
  2. Alexander J. German, Emily Blackwell , Mark Evans and Carri Westgarth. Variation in activity levels amongst dogs of different breeds: results of a large online survey of dog owners from the UK. Journal of Nutritional Science (2017), vol. 6, e10, page 1 of 7
  3. Juber Herrera Uribea , Anne D. Vitgerb , Christian Ritz , Merete Fredholm, Charlotte R. Bjørnvad , Susanna Cirera. Physical training and weight loss in dogs lead to transcriptional changes in genes involved in the glucose-transport pathway in muscle and adipose tissues The Veterinary Journal 208 (2016) 22–27
  4. Anne D. Vitger DVM Bente M. Stallknecht MD, PhD, DMSc Dorte H. Nielsen DVM, PhD Charlotte R. Bjornvad DVM, PhD Integration of a physical training program in a weight loss plan for overweight pet dogs. JAVMA Vol 248 No. 2 January 15, 2016
  5. Duncan C, Carswell A, Nelson T, Graham DJ, Duerr FM. Veterinary-prescribed physical activity promotes walking in healthy dogs and people. BMC Vet Res. 2020;16(1):468.

About the Author

Dr. Durzi holding her pug in a winter forest.

Dr. Durzi graduated from OVC in 2000 and began her career working at a mixed animal practice in Southern Ontario. In 2001, she moved to the Cayman Islands where she practised small animal medicine and surgery for seven years in private practice and two years at St. Matthew’s University School of Veterinary Medicine. In 2010, she returned to the Ontario Veterinary College as a clinical veterinarian at the Hill’s Primary Healthcare Centre. Dr. Durzi is a Primary Care Veterinary Educator at the OVC Smith Lane Animal Hospital. Dr. Durzi is Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist (CVA), a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist (CCRT) and a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner (CVPP). She has been the Chief of Service at the OVC Fitness and Rehabilitation Service since 2013.

Edited by: Shoshana Verton-Shaw, RVT, VTS (Nutrition)