National Canine Fitness Month offers health benefits for dogs, owners

single-meta-cal April 23, 2021

If you’re anything like most Americans, you may have put on a few pounds during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A woman seen at left holds a leash as she walks a mixed-breed dog on a sunny day

Sandra Pozar-Keeter, a Huntsville Animal Services (HAS) volunteer, takes Agnes, a mixed-breed dog, for a walk. April is National Canine Fitness Month, and HAS has plenty of fitness buddies available for adoption.

According to the American Psychological Association, 61% of adults reported experiencing undesired weight changes. About 42% (2 in 5) said they gained more weight than intended.

Weight gain varied among those surveyed, with the average being 15 pounds. Those in the 42% group, however, reported gaining an average of 29 pounds.

Reasons for pandemic weight gain vary, but the biggest factors are increased stress, more time at home, constant access to food, snacking on processed foods and limited gym access.

Those able to maintain an outdoor fitness routine have likely fared best. While gyms have been closed, parks, hiking trails and other outdoor recreational facilities offer clean air and social distancing opportunities for anyone wanting to burn off some pandemic pounds.

For those who prefer exercising with a buddy, four-legged friends can be a fitness motivator. Even better, now is the perfect time because April is National Canine Fitness Month. As luck would have it, there are plenty of potential exercise buddies available for adoption at Huntsville Animal Services (HAS).

“It’s been proven over and over again that pets are good for our health,” said HAS Director Dr. Karen Sheppard. “The bond between the human and pet is so beneficial, and dogs need to be walked. I’ve always enjoyed walking with my dogs than just going by myself.”

Mutual benefits

Sheppard said owning a dog forces people to move if they notice their pooch standing near the door.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, walking or playing with a pet can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Other benefits include decreased feelings of loneliness and more opportunities to socialize with others.

It’s been proven over and over again that pets are good for our health. The bond between the human and pet is so beneficial, and dogs need to be walked.

Sandra Pozar-Keeter, a longtime HAS volunteer who walks dogs several times a week, echoes those benefits. The Pittsburgh native said volunteering gets her out of the house and improves her overall health.

“I’m in my 60s, and arthritis is settling in,” she said. “This allows me to get exercise without putting extra stress on my knees.”

She added that walking the shelter dogs helps make them more adoptable because they learn how to walk on a leash “without taking an owner for a ride.”

A weight-loss tool

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, seen at left, fist-bumps Huntsville Animal Shelter Karen Sheppard at Huntsville Animal Services. Both are wearing face coverings.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle fist-bumps Huntsville Animal Services Director Dr. Karen Sheppard. Sheppard says National Canine Month presents great fitness opportunities for both people and pooches.

In addition to the CDC’s benefits for humans, Sheppard said dogs need physical activity to stay in shape. Like humans, she said, pets can be obese and have weight-related health problems.

She explained ideal weight generally depends on the breed, but there are some hallmarks of a physically fit dog.

“You should be able to feel their ribs. From the side, you should be able to see their waist,” she said. “We see some dogs come in that look like a sausage. Sadly, if you adore your dog and they live with you, they’re probably overweight.”

Mental stimulation

Because of the pandemic, many Americans feel isolated and depressed. Pozar-Keeter said walking a dog can remedy that.

A Huntsville Animal Services volunteer poses for a photo with a mixed-breed dog on a sunny day.

Sandra Pozar-Keeter and Agnes, a mixed-breed dog at Huntsville Animal Services (HAS), take a brief pause during their walk.

“I think people went through a phase where they were afraid to come out of their house and do things. If you have a dog, it motivates you to go out. When you have a dog depending on you, you can’t just sit around,” she said. “Even those who don’t like to socialize, they love to talk about their dogs. When you’re walking a dog and someone says, ‘That’s a great-looking dog,’ it forces them to come out of their shell and talk about their dog.”

Pozar-Keeter also enjoys the peacefulness of the walks, and she knows the dogs do, too.

“It’s so loud and noisy in the shelter. When they go out for a walk, it’s quiet,” she said. “Plus, their sense of smell is how they keep their minds alert. They’re sniffing new things, seeing traffic, and people will walk over and pet them.”

How much is too much?

While any pooch at HAS would be a great walking or hiking partner, Sheppard said owners shouldn’t be too ambitious. She explained some owners want a dog that can walk or hike for 10 miles, but dogs aren’t necessarily equipped for that.

Click here to read dog-walking tips from the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“It can be damaging to their joints and their heart, and you really have to pay attention to heat exhaustion,” she said. “If you’re running on asphalt, dogs can get pad wear and some blistering.”

No time like today

Sheppard and Pozar-Keeter both said National Canine Fitness Month is a great time to think about physical fitness, but also stress the importance of adopting a workout buddy. As of April 2021, HAS was running about 20% over capacity. Sheppard would also love to have more volunteers willing to come take the pooches for a walk.

“Most of our pets need a lot of exercise,” she said. “Our volunteers get 10,000 steps a day here versus about 2,500 at home.”

For those who don’t have the time to volunteer at the shelter, there are always opportunities to adopt or foster a pet and revive long-forgotten fitness goals.

“So many people say, ‘When I have more time, I’ll clean up my diet and start working on that Couch to 5K,’ or ‘I’ll go to the gym and do a little every day,’” Sheppard said. “The more active you are, the healthier you are. Hopefully, you’ll want to take your dog with you.”

To learn more about HAS, visit their website or Facebook page. See what pets are available for adoption by clicking here.