Why Walk? Part 2

This weekend I posted about the importance of walking your dogs.  Most of us don’t live in the woods or on large parcels of land where our dogs have the ability to roam around all day.  Most of our dogs, like their owners, live fairly sedentary lifestyles in comparison to their ancestors.  Consequently, I believe that walking your dog is the single most important thing you can do for their health.  You can read my thoughts on the matter here.

However, today I want to talk about why walking your dog is good for you, not just your best four-legged friend.

Part 2:  The Human Benefits of Walking

1. Physical exercise:  This should be the most obvious reason that walking your dog is good for you.  The CDC, American Heart Association, and Mayo Clinic all recommend that an average adult between the ages of 18 and 64 performs 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (walking) each week.  150 minutes might sound like a lot, but when it is broken up over 7 days, it is a little over 20 minutes a day.  The CDC even specifically states that:

“10 minutes at a time is fine. We know 150 minutes each week sounds like a lot of time, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Not only is it best to spread your activity out during the week, but you can break it up into smaller chunks of time during the day. As long as you’re doing your activity at a moderate or vigorous effort for at least 10 minutes at a time.”

Perfect!   That means if you take your dog out for 10 minutes before work, and 10 minutes when you get home you have met your daily quota.  If you want to get really fancy, the CDC recommends 500 minutes of exercise a week for greater health benefits, but that might be a nice goal to build up to if you’re just starting off.  To read more about recommended exercise levels, click on the hyperlinks above to visit the pages of different organizations.

The real questions is why is exercise important?   Here are just a few benefits of regular exercise:

  • Strengthening your cardiovascular system:  Moderate aerobic exercise helps to strengthen heart muscle.  This causes an increased stroke volume (more blood pumped per beat) which means your heart doesn’t work as hard to pump the same amount of blood.  Walking also helps to lower cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure.
  • Increasing muscle mass and tone:  You will be amazed at how much muscle mass and tone you can gain just from walking.  Your muscles support your joints and bones and helps to prevent injury.  Your muscles also store glycogen (energy), and the more muscle you have, the more glycogen that can be stored which means less muscle fatigue.  Also, your muscles are where energy is broken down in your body, so when you increase the amount of muscle in your body, you are also increasing your metabolism.
  • Strengthening bones and joints:  Walking is a great exercise for your bones because it is fairly low-impact, but still allows for some wear and tear on your bones and joints.  This normal wear and tear actually causes microscopic breaks in your bones that special cells called osteoblasts are constantly repairing.  Luckily for us, osteoblasts are really good at their jobs, and they actually repair our bones to be stronger than they were originally.  Women, especially, require regular weight-bearing exercise to keep their bones strong and help prevent osteoporosis.
  • Increased endurance: The combination of increased muscle mass, bone density, and cardiovascular output increases your overall endurance.  You will have more energy and won’t become tired as easily when performing daily tasks.  You might even find yourself wanting to get more things accomplished because you have the energy and ability to.

There are hundreds of other reasons that exercise is important for our bodies.  It helps to regular blood sugar, moderates lipid (fat) levels, and strengthens the respiratory system.  The bottom line is that physical exercise benefits every system in your body one way or another.  It’s basically a wonder drug!

2. Mental stimulation:  Whenever I think about the mental benefits of exercise, I think of the movie Legally Blonde.  Elle, the “ditsy” blonde protagonist, is trying to prove in court that a famous exercise instructor didn’t kill her husband.  Although Elle’s argument may have been overly simplistic (and she ends up proving her case based on the chemistry of perming hair….), she does have one solid quote that I love.  Elle states, “Exercise gives you endorphins.  Endorphins make you happy.  Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” (video clip)

Elle is correct that exercise does release chemicals known as endorphins in your brain which cause an increased feeling of happiness.  These chemicals are responsible for the “runner’s high” phenomenon and have also been show to reduce symptoms of depression.  Some other mental benefits to walking are:

  • Stress release:  Not only does going for a walk give you that feeling of ‘clearing your head’, it also has a physiological response to stress.  When you exercise your body releases a chemical called norepinephrine, which helps the brain regulate the response to stress.  Although we may opt for a glass of wine and a bath after a particularly frustrating day, a 20 minute walk will actually do you more good.
  • Regulate sleep patterns: Not only will you be more physically tired, but exercising a few hours before bed also helps to shut your brain off at night.  This can help eliminate tossing and turning, and result in a more worthwhile night’s sleep.
  • Stimulate thought and creativity: I personally get all of my best thinking done while I’m out walking with the dogs.  When I’m not trying to stop them from climbing a tree or jumping in the river, I have a chunk of distraction-free time to think about strategies for accomplishing different tasks ahead of me, or coming up with new ideas of things to try (such as “I should start a blog…”).  It is rare nowadays that we are ever really distraction free without computers, phones, or television to do some solid thinking.  Walking provides us that time.

3.  Vitamin D:  The sun has been getting a bit of a bad wrap recently, and as a redhead I know why- it burns!  The studies detailing the dangers of sunburns are plentiful, and why allowing ourselves to get sunburned is a very bad idea, getting low amounts of sun exposure each day is a very good idea.  When our skin is in the presence of UV light, it produces Vitamin D, which is essential for many physiological process.  Vitamin D allows our bodies to absorb calcium, which is needed for bone growth, muscle function, and numerous other tasks.   You can read in detail about Vitamin D here at the National Institute of Health website, but my non-medical opinion is that 20 minutes a day of morning or evening sun exposure will do much more good than harm.  Plus, it gives you the excuse to buy a cute sun hat.

4. Sweat:  Sweat also tends to get a bad wrap in society, but I have to say I love sweat!  The skin is one of the major detoxifying organs in your body and sweat is the vessel of detoxification.  Your sweat is made up of mostly water, but also contains minerals and metabolic waste, such as urea and lactic acid, that your body produces during day to day functions.  Sweat is the quickest and easiest way to clear this metabolic junk out of your body.  Sweat is also great for your pores if you are prone to acne, as it helps to wash away the bacteria and other substances that causes inflammation of your sebaceous glands.  And yes, you may be a tad stinky after a good, long sweat, but it’s nothing a quick shower cant’ fix!

5. Confidence:  Once you and your dog get into the walking routine you will find that your confidence grows.  Not only will you have learned which routes to take to avoid a confrontation with that pesky neighborhood cat, but you may begin to see some of the same people out and about.  After a while they will give you those looks of, “Wow, what a great dog owner they must be!” or, “I wish I looked that cool when I walked my dog.”  There is also my personal favorite of being told, “Wow, what a gorgeous/handsome/cool looking dog you have!” to which I always answer, “Oh, thanks so much,” and Oswald is sure to carry his head and tail a little higher.

6.  Family bonding:  I’m a big fan of family dog walks in our house.  I have to admit that no one else seems to be as excited about them as I am, but I drag them out with me on a weekend morning anyway.  Although I am met with many grumblings as I shove my lovelies out of the house, we always have a nice time once we are out walking.  It allows us to all chat together, laugh at the dogs, and get some fresh air.

7.  You dog will love you:  This is the best reason, in my opinion.  Your dog will be eternally grateful because they love their walks so much.  It gives them time to hang out with you and do something they love, which is really all any dog wants.  So do your dog a favor and give them 20 minutes a day of your time.  Trust me, after two weeks you’ll be craving your walks!

Look for Part 3 coming tomorrow about helpful supplies that make walking with your dogs much easier.  I will also discuss my quest to bring back the “bum bag”, which my boyfriend is less than enthused about!

Happy Trails!

This post is Oswald approved.

This post is Oswald approved.

Why Walk? Part 1

This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for a while because it is about a subject on which I have very strong feelings- walking your dog.  It is my belief that walking your dog is the single most important thing you can do for the physical and mental health of your pet. There are numerous benefits associated with walking your dog, not only for your dog, but for you as well.  This will be a two-part post.  One part about the benefits that walking provides for your dog, and the other about the benefits walking provides for you (of which there are many!).

Part 1:  The Canine Benefits of Walking

1. Physical exercise:  This is likely the most obvious benefit of walking your dog.  Just like in humans, a sedentary dog is not a healthy dog.  Cruising around the backyard for a few minutes a day does not provide the proper aerobic activity needed for a healthy dog, just as moving around one’s house does not provide enough exercise for a person. Walking has many physical benefits for your pet, here are a few:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight for your pet- Dogs that are overweight should certainly include exercise in their weight-loss routine, as opposed to relying solely on less food consumption.
  • Strengthening their cardiovascular system- This is very important for dogs of any sizes and will help keep them healthy as they age.
  • Increasing muscle mass and tone-  Daily exercise helps to build up a proper level of muscle mass on your dog that is needed to support their bones and joints.  This helps to prevent some joint problems as they age, and also improves their overall metabolism.  Plus, it gives dogs that handsome toned look without having to hit the gym.
  • Strengthening bones and joints-  When dogs are exposed to aerobic activity, it puts a very small amount of stress on their bones.  This stress causes tiny, tiny, tiny breaks and weaknesses in their bones, which are then repaired by their body while they are resting.  When their body repairs these weakened areas of bone, the repair is made to be stronger than the bone was originally.  Over time, this causes higher bone density and stronger bones and joints for your dog. Even in older pets, daily walking is helpful to maintain the flexibility of their joints which will help to battle stiffness, arthritis, and joint problems that are associated with senior pets.

These are all important health reasons, but let’s not forget that dogs also just have a lot of energy.  Walking is the best way to let them release some stress and energy so they will be significantly calmer around the house.

2. Mental stimulation:  In my opinion, the mental stimulation that a dog gains from going for walks is just as important as the physical benefits.  Dogs are natural inquisitive creatures and are also very intelligent, but, like humans, they need mental stimulation to maintain their brain activity.  By sitting around the house all day and only being exposed to the same area of backyard, your dog’s brain function will drop over time, as it doesn’t take a lot of thinking or problem solving to walk around the same plot of land each day.  However, during walks dogs are constantly exposed to new smells that need to be processed, visual stimulation from variety of different sights, and auditory stimulation from various unknown sounds.  These factors combined with an increased level of overall activity cause an strong increase in brain function. Dogs also have a natural desire to roam and inspect their area, so walking in an area near your house gives your dog a feeling of accomplishment as he surveys his “territory”. These factors all cause your dog to increase the use of many parts of its brain that only get minimal use at home.  This higher level of mental activity has other sub-benefits that occur also such as….

3.  Improved behavior:  Dogs, like children, don’t innately go looking for trouble, they often just find it when they are bored.  A dog that receives stimulation from walks is significantly less likely to try to dig out of the yard, shred your favorite couch,or raid your closet for your most expensive pair of heels to chew.   Granted, walking is not a miracle cure for all behavior problems, but by providing your dog with mental stimulation and activity through walks, they are much less likely to feel the need to find their own forms of stimulation/ trouble.

4. Training:  Walks are a great time to catch up on some training.  This can be as basic as asking your dog to sit while you put their leash or before you cross a street, or can get as intricate as off-leash agility training (but I’ll save that for another post).  It is important to establish a good walking routine in which you are the leader of the walk, as opposed to the dog walking you.*  Once this routine is established, you will notice that your dog is very responsive to your commands and actually enjoys responding to your cues.  Most breeds were bred over time to be some form of working dog, and therefore they actually crave the stimulation of following commands.

*More on good on-leash walking techniques to come soon in a future post.

5. Toe Nails:  This one may seem a little random, but trust me, it’s important.  Anyone who has ever tried to clip their dogs toe nails knows that it is generally a bit of an ordeal (unless you have one of those wonder dogs that doesn’t mind in the slightest, in which case, count your blessings!).  Oswald, for example, has never had his toe nails clipped, nor has he ever needed to.  Walking daily on different surfaces, but especially concrete sidewalks, naturally files his nails and keeps them at a normal length.  No traumatic nail trimmings for us.

6. Socialization:  Dogs are naturally social creatures.  In the wild, they live in packs together, and their social bonds with humans were one of the main reasons dogs were chosen for domestication all those years ago.  When out walking, dogs have the opportunity to meet up with other dogs and other people.  If you have a dog that is slightly skittish of people they don’t know, keep some treats in your pocket and allow interested people to offer a couple to your dog.  Over time, your dog will become much less anxious when meeting new people.  If you have a dog that loves everyone and everything (i.e. my dog Rupert), then use meeting other dogs an people as a training moment.  Ask your dog to sit as other dogs or people approach, and once they sit quietly then they get the reward of the attention from the other dog or human.  This method also prevents any lunging and jumping up that can be a problematic behavior.

7. Your dog with love you for it:  If all those other reasons weren’t enough, this reason will get you. I see it twice a day, every day when I put on my shoes to take the dogs out- that looks of pure happiness on their faces.  Dogs love their walks so much, and they will love you and appreciate you even more for taking them.

So, whether you need to start this process or just get back into the routine, get going!  Dig out your tennis shoes and pull out the leash.  Even 15 minutes a day is enough to provide all of these benefits for your dog, and it will be well worth it in the long run.

Look for our next post of why walking is so important for you, as well!

Happy Trails!

Oswald taking a 7 am walking through the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Oswald taking a 7 am walking through the French Quarter in New Orleans.