En español │Pets don't care how they look, and they don't mind how you look, either. But extra weight is as much a health problem for our pets as it is for us.
In our increasingly sedentary, stressed-out and overfed culture, people and pets are consuming more calories, exercising less and collectively getting more overweight by the minute. But just as we gained the weight together, we can lose it together, too.
If getting fit and losing weight was one of your New Year's resolutions, your dog can help. After all, he's the only exercise partner who will never blow you off for a better offer or decide staying in bed is better than going for a walk. In fact, studies show that people with pets are more likely to be active, and pet lovers who start walking with their dogs for fitness are more likely to keep doing so.
Best of all: Your four-legged personal trainer charges you nothing to keep you motivated, and pays you in canine exuberance, doggy kisses and nonstop tail wags.
Ready to get started? Here's how:
Check in with a checkup. Before beginning any exercise regimen, you should consult your doctor and your dog needs to see a veterinarian. You'll want to know what your physical limitations are so you can work around them — and eventually beyond them. While you're at your respective doctors' offices, get an accurate weight so you have a starting point.
Make a plan. Tracking your walks can be as simple or as complicated as you want. Simple: Get a wall calendar and mark the days and the distance, with monthly check-ins for weight loss. Complicated: Look into software applications and websites that track workouts, calories and more.
Get your gear on. You don't need much in the way of equipment. Good walking shoes and weather-appropriate attire will suffice. Your dog needs a collar with ID and a license, and a six-foot leash. Two recent inventions in dog gear make walking much easier: the head halter and the front-clip harness. For a strong dog that sometimes pulls, these tools can be like power steering for your pup. Many dogs cope just fine in their own fur coats, but smaller, older dogs — and thin breeds, such as greyhounds and whippets — will likely enjoy the outing more with booties and a sweater or raincoat.
Walk this way. Many dogs on leash pull because they haven't been taught to walk politely. If you can afford it, get a trainer to work with you one-on-one to teach your dog to walk without pulling. A couple of private lessons are a good investment in a well-mannered dog, and so is a training class if your dog needs more than a brushup. If your dog is aggressive to other dogs or people, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a dog trainer or behaviorist who can help you decide if your dog can be made safe in public, and help you with a training plan to make that happen.
Be safe and responsible. Walk with reflective gear on you and your pet, and choose established neighborhoods with sidewalks for safety. Country roads may be pretty, but free roaming and overprotective farm dogs and fast-moving vehicles on two-lane roads make for higher risk. Carry ID, a mobile phone and, of course, pickup bags. It's just plain rude not to pick up after your dog.
Keep at it. Begin with short distances and then build up. Walking every day is best — your dog will agree — but do what you can and build on your successes. Keep track of your walks, so you can monitor your progress and appreciate how far you've come along the road to fitness for you and your pooch.
Dr. Marty Becker, "America's Veterinarian," is the resident veterinarian for Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show. He also is the co-author, along with Dr. Robert Kushner, of Fitness Unleashed: A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together. Find him in the AARPPetPals forum of AARP.org.