The best workout buddy: your dog

A young man runs with his large black lab. Generic.
A young man runs with his large black lab. Generic.

One of the most overlooked fitness tools could be sprawled on the rug in front of you. It's called  a dog and it's probably hanging out for a walk.  Australia might have a high rate of dog ownership but that doesn't mean all dog owners are enthusiastic dog walkers, says researcher  Professor Adrian Bauman.

Some studies of dog owners and physical activity suggest that up to half of dog owners still don't meet the recommended physicial activity guidelines - around 30 minutes  on most days of the week -says Bauman, Director of the University of Sydney's Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Research Group who walks his own Jack Russell twice a day.

"Yet if they did they'd reduce their risk of chronic disease,"he says.

There are also the dog owners who do make it to the local park but then grind to a halt, standing in one spot tossing a ball for the dog. Sometimes this becomes a group inactivity as multiple dog owners gather together chatting and ball chucking while their dogs dash around the park getting fitter.

Yet a dog can be a human's best exercise buddy - and while walking is the obvious thing to do and a good place to start, there are other ways of working out with dogs that can raise your heart rate a little more.

Usually when humans interact with dogs, it's the two legged animal calling the shots: human summons dog, dog runs to human.  But switching things around a bit   can help make humans fitter:  human throws ball, dog sprints after ball – and human sprints after dog.  Using this idea, my kelpie cross and I have created our own doggie soccer that goes something like this.  I kick a  ball, dog races to retrieve ball, I race after the dog and kick the ball again and so on until one of us (usually me) runs out of breath and slows to a walk. Jogging around the oval throwing the ball as you go is another option, or even alternating jogging with a few sprints if you want to add in some interval training.

But you get the picture – it's more about moving around and having fun than hard slog, and it's good for both of you. Dogs, after all, are as prone to the same inactivity-related health problems like obesity and diabetes as their human friends.

There's also something special about running with a dog loping beside you, especially in natural environments.  It's partly the companionship but also because it seems like such a natural thing to do and a way in which humans and dogs have bonded together for thousands of years.

Not all dogs love running though, or are suited to it  - think low-slung breeds like dachshunds or basset hounds, for instance -  so we  humans need to use common sense and if a dog balks at running,  is panting very heavily or seeking shade, then slow down, advises  Professor Paul McGreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and  Welfare at the University of Sydney.

Other safety issues around exercising with dogs include throwing balls rather than sticks which can sometimes cause fatal injuries,  throwing long low shots with the ball and avoiding  high bounces or vertical throws that encourage dogs to jump too high and risk injury, he adds.

Humans also need to be mindful of problems caused by summer heat – running bare-pawed on blistering bitumen is no fun. There's also the risk of heat exhaustion in hot weather, especially in high energy breeds like kelpies and other working dogs that will push themselves to the limit.

"I have known of dogs who've died of overexercise at Christmas – but far more dogs die from being under exercised," McGreevy says.

This story The best workout buddy: your dog first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.