If you’re experiencing a heat wave in your area, perhaps reconsider outdoor exercise until the weather cools down. In the meantime, consider indoor cognitive enrichment activities to occupy your dog and help improve their brain aging.
It is well established that exercise has health benefits in humans. Regular physical activity can extend lifespan, reduce the occurrence of age-associated diseases, and help maintain and restore function in humans. So what about dogs? Is it time to start a chain of canine fitness centers?
Humans and dogs are much more alike than we are different in our physiology, how our bodies work. There is no reason to think that dogs should not benefit from exercise just as humans and other animals do. However, so far we don’t have much scientific evidence concerning the health effects of exercise in our canine friends.
Can exercise help dogs achieve and maintain a healthy weight?
Just as in humans, one of the biggest risk factors for age-associated illness and premature death in dogs is obesity. Low levels of exercise are associated with an increased risk of obesity in both species, so it is possible regular physical activity may be protective against becoming overweight.
A few studies have investigated exercise along with reduced feeding for weight loss in dogs. Some have found benefits, but not all, and it is very clear that exercising without reducing calories is unlikely to lead to meaningful weight loss. However, overweight dogs may still benefit from exercise during dieting in other ways, such as preserving muscle mass and maintaining general fitness.
What other benefits does exercise have for our canine friends?
Exercise appears to improve comfort and function in dogs with arthritis beyond the benefits associated with weight reduction. Activity has also been shown to have potential benefits in some other age-related health conditions. One study, for example, found that adding an exercise program to medication therapy in dogs with chronic diarrhea improved appetite and symptom control.
As previously shown in humans and in laboratory animals, exercise appears to modify some aspects of canine metabolism in beneficial ways. The metabolic mechanisms affected by physical activity are some of the same affected by caloric restriction, the term for a feeding program that dramatically reduces calorie intake without causing malnutrition.
One study of long-term caloric restriction found it extended lifespan and delayed important age-related diseases by about 1 ½ years in Labrador retrievers. This research suggests exercise could extend health span and lifespan in dogs since it affects some of the same aspects of metabolism as caloric restriction.
Can exercise help dogs live longer?
We don’t yet have clear evidence showing that increasing physical activity makes dogs live longer. What we do know, however, is that the opposite of exercise, prolonged inactivity, is harmful. Laboratory studies done a long time ago, before current ethical standards were in place, show that immobilization reduces bone and muscle mass and function in dogs, just as a sedentary lifestyle does in humans.
Fitness—the capacity for aerobic exercise—declines with age in dogs as it does in humans. Along with arthritis and other age-related changes in health, this loss of fitness may be part of the reason older dogs are less active than younger individuals. Regular exercise, including aerobic activity which raises heart rate and strength training, helps elderly humans maintain function longer. Such activity will likely also be beneficial for geriatric dogs, and possibly for cats despite some differences in their natural patterns of physical activity.
We know many pets lead excessively sedentary lives and suffer from obesity, which has demonstrable negative health effects. It is likely these pets would benefit from increased activity, both in terms of improved weight management and in general health. This is especially true for older pets. Owners and veterinarians sometimes assume low levels of physical activity are just a normal part of aging, when they are actually harmful to the health and comfort of aging dogs.
How else can exercise benefit our dogs and ourselves?
Apart from the likely benefits of exercise for dogs, encouraging more exercise for our canine patients very likely also benefits their owners. Dog ownership has been associated with better outcomes in people for both mental and physical health, particularly in reducing the risk of heart disease. Studies reveal dog owners who walk their dogs get more physical activity than people without dogs, and the American Heart Association has concluded dogs may improve heart health for their owners.
While more research is definitely needed, it is highly likely increased physical exercise is beneficial for cats and dogs in maintaining health and slowing aging. There’s also plenty of evidence showing exercising with our dogs is good for our health. So, take your dog for a walk right now!
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