Neither you nor your pet will get hurt if your sessions begin slowly and gradually work up to a level you both can handle easily.
ILLUSTRATION: ANDREW SHACHAT
Want a slimmer dog or cat? Diet alone won't do it.
Pet Fitness: A Pet Exercise Program
Anyone with a dog or cat owes that animal the three
essentials of a decent life: comfortable shelter,
nutritious food and the opportunity (and, if necessary, the
motivation) to get adequate exercise.
The Benefits of Pet Fitness
There is, of course, an overwhelming body of scientific
evidence to support the notion that exercise is vital to
human wellness. Most veterinarians believe that
the same holds true for animals. Nearly all the documented
benefits of exercise for humans are also apparent in active
Mentally and emotionally, an exercising animal is
invariably better off—happier, more alert, more
content. Activity soothes life's many stresses. The
exerciser sleeps better, has more libido and is better
adjusted. In their book Pet Aerobics (Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, 1984), Warren and Fay Eckstein state
emphatically, "Nearly every behavior problem we have
encountered in our 14 years of work with animals is
directly attributable to lack of exercise." (The Eck steins
are professional animal trainers who have worked with more
than 20,000 pets.) Mentioned in the Ecksteins' list of
"ailments" that disappear after proper exercise are
furniture chewing, biting, car chasing, hole digging and
Exercise keeps your pet lean and trim, too. There's simply
no other way to get—and keep—the lard off. I
used to tell clients with portly pets that diet was the key
(the same advice physicians would give overweight
patients). "This animal is grossly out of shape," I'd say,
pounding my fist on the exam table. "It's eating too many
groceries. Cut down on the vittles and it'll lose that
fat." Since then I've learned that dieting alone doesn't
Decreased food intake is an important factor in losing
weight, but pet fitness is a necessary companion. An animal
(or human) loses only so much weight by dieting, and then
stops at a level known as a set point. Exercise, however,
lowers that set point, making it possible for Pooch to
become the svelte self he's meant to be. And because
creatures that exercise crave more nutritious foods and
metabolize them more efficiently, a weight-control regimen
of both reasonable diet and exercise can be
Physically active animals also have stronger and healthier
bones, better muscle tone and fewer everyday ailments. Even
maladies unique to the species occur less often. I seldom
see canine hip dysplasia in a lean, active dog.
Well-exercised hips build up a protective muscle mass that
helps prevent dysplasia.
How to Exercise Your Pet and How Much Exercise They Need
Cats, dogs and people all benefit most from aerobic
exercise—activities that are sufficiently demanding
to get and keep the lungs and heart pumping hard, but not
so hard that the exerciser has to stop just to catch a
breath. According to extensive research conducted by Dr.
Kenneth Cooper at the Aerobics Center in Dallas, Texas, the
most effective aerobic exercises for the human animal are
cross-country skiing, swimming, jogging or running, outdoor
cycling and walking.
Unless you have an extraordinary pet, cycling and skiing
are probably out of the question, but most dogs (and many
cats) will walk or run with you.
Before you take that first step together, make sure that
your pet is on a leash; exercise won't hurt it, but cars
and other animals can. If your pet's a pooch, teach it to
heel and to stay by your side always. And
naturally, if your pet is particularly old or suffers from
any malady that might impair its capacity for exercise, get
your vet's advice first. (Don't neglect to have your doctor
check you out, too, particularly if you're not used to
The key to effective aerobic exercise is to maintain a
regular program of long, gentle workouts. Neither you nor
your pet will get hurt if your sessions begin slowly and
gradually work up to a level you both can handle easily. As
a friend of mine says, "Start slow and then taper off."
In most cases, beginning workouts should consist of 15 to
20 minutes of easy walking. As you and your pet become
accustomed to the activity (this can take several
weeks; be patient), gradually increase the length
and intensity—first to brisk walking, then (if you're
both so inclined) to jogging or running. Promise your pet
you'll stick with a continuing program for at least 90 days
(this will give him or her time to begin to really
appreciate the workouts). Ultimately you'll want to give
your pet an aerobic workout for 20 to 30 minutes four or
five times a week.
How will you know it's a truly aerobic workout?
This will be difficult to determine for your pet; for you
it's easier. Your pulse rate should exceed approximately
140 beats per minute. Remember not to push yourself; if you
have trouble catching your breath, you're risking
injury—and not getting the benefits you're exercising
for. Animals have highly variable pulse rates, making it
hard to evaluate their aerobic state. So as you walk or jog
along with Rover or Kitty, keep track of your own pulse
rate, and you'll have a general idea when the two of you
are moving fast enough. All but the shortest-legged
critters will easily keep up with a gait that'll give you
both adequate aerobic exercise.
If you're going too fast or too far for your pet, it'll
show you a long, droopy tongue that may turn bluish if you
continue. Take a break and make tomorrow's workout shorter.
Remember also that in hot weather your pet can't sweat as
you do to keep cool. Be especially cautious during those
dog days of summer.
Not every pet, of course, is inclined to run or jog. (You
may not be either, for that matter.) If that's the case,
there are other ways you can encourage your animal into
activity. A dog accustomed to lazing around on the floor
all day may come alive with a good game of fetch the stick.
Even cats, although sometimes as single-minded as any
critters on earth, can usually be persuaded to revert to
the friskiness of their younger years. A cloth mouse tied
to a string and pulled around for the feline to chase may
do the trick. Or try encouraging Pussy to frolic by giving
it an occasional catnip treat. You might also consider
getting another. cat or dog to play with the one you have;
most animals become more active around other animals.
In any case, start your exercise program today. And make
every day's walk, jog or frolic a truly enjoyable play
period for both of you.