A recent news item published by HealthScout offered this advice for people bored with conventional exercise: “If you want to buy an exercise machine, go to the local dog pound and adopt a dog.” Since my apartment is a veritable Noah's Ark of adopted animals, I feel guilty knocking an article that encourages people to rescue dogs from shelters. But I've got to tell you: I own a dog, and a dog can't take the place of exercise equipment.
Consider this study from the Medical Journal of Australia, released days after the HealthScout piece: After randomly surveying 894 New South Wales adults, researchers discovered that people who owned dogs weren't particularly active compared to the rest of the population. In fact, of the 411 dog owners who participated in the survey, less than half performed the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week. The researchers also learned that only 15 to 20 percent of dog owners walked their dogs for two hours a week. And 59 percent didn't walk their dogs at all!
I'm not sure how these numbers stack up to U.S. dog owners. However, given our country's growing obesity problem, I assume they're pretty much the same.
I could be wrong. Americans may walk their dogs more often than Aussies do. Even so, I'm still not convinced that dog walking qualifies as meaningful exercise.
I'm speaking from experience. I take my dog out twice a day, my wife takes him out once. Altogether, I probably walk him for at least three hours a week.
The trouble is, the word “walk” is misleading. My dog and I are not exactly walking the whole time we are outside. He pulls, strolls, chases, sniffs, stops, stares, digs, marks territory. I'm just along for the ride. Sure, I spend time walking. But I also spend time standing still while he plans his next move. I also do my best to look cool as I clean up any mess he leaves behind. Believe me, walking a dog can be an exercise in humiliation, but it's not exercise.
As a test, I once wore my heart rate monitor while walking the dog. The monitor beeps whenever I fall out of my zone. In this case, it never stopped beeping. I never even got into my zone. I tried moving faster, swinging my arms, anything to make the activity more strenuous. Nothing worked. All I succeeded in doing was confusing my dog. As I picked up the pace and flailed my limbs, he gave me a look that said, “Dude, what's your problem?”
I suppose I could have tried a steady jog. Dogs will usually follow an owner's lead. Run, and dogs will run with you. The drawback is they won't stop until you do. As a result, they may push themselves to the point of exhaustion. That's why clubs offering dog-walking outings usually set parameters to keep members and mutts safe. After all, walking a dog isn't about racing him. It's about giving him a chance to do all the things you don't want him to do in your home. Know what I mean?
To be fair, some breeds love activity. These dogs make perfect pets for people who want to exercise with an animal. However, the opposite is also true: Some dogs hate to move.
I know a guy who has two basset hounds. If he tries to walk them more than a block, they simply stop and refuse to go on. Have you ever tried to coerce a stubborn basset hound into walking? It's not pretty.
The point is this: Dogs are not substitutes for exercise equipment. They're not substitutes for clubs. So when faced with prospects who are choosing between dog ownership and a club membership, tell them this: If you're looking for companionship, rescue a pooch from the local pound. But if you're looking to improve your health, join a club. Just make sure to leave your dog plenty of food, water and toys when you go to the gym.