We’ve all heard that regular exercise is one of the keys to a long and healthy life. But particularly if you’re older, it can be hard to take that first step toward healthier living—and even harder to stay motivated. Need help? Look no further than your canine companion. “Dogs are good accountability partners,” says Dr. Susan Nelson, DVM, and clinical associate professor at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Even when you don’t feel like exercising, it’s hard to ignore those big, pleading eyes.”
Ready to take that first step? With the help of our guide, you can embark upon a fitness plan together with these simple tips.
Go For a Health Check
Before you begin any exercise program, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor for a check-up. And don’t forget about your dog—Fido needs a wellness check, too. “One of the first steps is to schedule a check-up for your dog with your veterinarian,” Nelson advises. “You want to make sure they are healthy enough to do the type of activities you plan on doing.” While you’re there, make sure your pup is up-to-date on vaccinations to prepare for any excursions to the dog park. And don’t be afraid to ask for advice: your doctor and your veterinarian can offer exercise recommendations tailored to you and your pet.
Start With a Walk—a Slow One
Particularly for seniors, it’s important to start simple and work your way up to more vigorous activities. Take the advice of Melissa Morrison of Fur Fitness, a Southern California company that combats pet obesity with exercise and nutrition. “What I tell my clients is, you have to make a commitment of 30 minutes a day,” she says. As long as your dog is healthy, “start with a 30-minute walk, very calmly. No running or jogging or anything. And just slowly let them get used to the elements, let them sniff, kind of let them take the lead.” We often forget that dogs can get seriously out of shape too, and we push them too hard too fast, which can result in serious injury.
Once you’ve taken time to establish that non-negotiable daily walk, you can build from there. Try increasing to two walks, and if you’d like, eventually speed up to a jog. But there’s no rush or imperative to quicken your pace a long, slow walk can be immensely rewarding, both physically and mentally. “I work with a lot of overweight dogs, so I stress that you’ve got to go slow,” Morrison says. “But that mental clarity that they get just from being outside and that one-on-one time with you is so important.”
Yes, it’s true: nature is the best gym. According to The New York Times, a number of recent studies have revealed that people who exercise outside do so more frequently, have lower levels of cortisol (a hormone linked to stress), and report feeling happier and less tired. Not to mention that dogs sure seem to like the outdoors. “It’s a great de-stressor,” Morrison says. “I look down at my dog’s face, and she’s so excited to be outside.” Taking a hike with your dog is also a great way to turn that daily walk into a more rigorous workout. “As both you and your dog get into better condition, you may add walks or hikes that include some hills,” Nelson suggests. Try hiking in different areas to mix it up—it’ll allow you and your pooch to take in new sights and smells. “Nobody wants to be stuck behind four walls,” Morrison says. “Everybody wants to see what’s going on in the world, and it’s no different for dogs.”