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NEW YORK (Reuters) - When it comes to getting fit a person's best friend just might be a four-legged one.
Experts say studies show dog owners walk more, walk faster, and are more likely to enjoy an active lifestyle because of their companion animal.
"I'm fascinated by what a great motivator dogs can be," said Dr. Sandra McCune, co-editor of the book, "The Health Benefits of Dog Walking for People and Pets."
McCune, an animal behaviorist based in Leicestershire, England, said studies show if you're a dog walker, you're more likely to meet the guidelines for daily activities.
Dogs are the reason behind two-thirds, 66 percent, of the walks their owners take each week, according to a recent survey of more than 1,011 adults commissioned by pet food company Mars Petcare.
One-quarter of people with children and pets regularly visit parks and other outdoor spaces because of their dog.
"Personally, I have a Labrador," McCune said. "When it's dark, when it's raining, the dog needs a walk, every day."
She said dog walking also strengthens social and communal ties.
"If people go out with a dog, they're more likely to have a conversation," she explained.
According to the poll some 44 percent of dog owners aged 65 and older exercise on a weekly basis because of their dog.
"Dogs are strong drivers of social capital," said McCune, explaining that social capital is a sociological term which she defined as the value of all relationships.
"Dog ownership benefits the entire community," she said.
This fall YMCAs in several U.S. cities are hosting their version of dog days. Called the Power of Pets, the programs include dog run/walks, dog yoga and other dog fair activities.
"It's a chance to get the community together," Katy Leclair, executive director of the Lake View, Illinois YMCA said of the program. "Families with dogs tend to be more active."
As workout partners, canines can offer energy, enthusiasm, and the social support so crucial to sticking with an exercise program, according to Shirley Archer, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise.
"Dogs can provide that companionship," said Archer, a Florida-based fitness instructor. "Frisbee tossing, ball throwing, agility competitions, dog and human boot camps, are great opportunities to be active," she said. "But obedience training is a must."
She cautions that as living creatures dogs need to be taken care of.
"If they ride with you on a bicycle, they need to be trained to stay close," she said. "Keep them hydrated. Check their paws. Don't let them run right after they eat."
Laura Cartwright Hardy, a grandmother and full-time graduate student living in Little Rock, Arkansas, has two huge German Shepherds.
"I've had big dogs since I was 20 and that's definitely been part of the reason I've always been fit," said Hardy, who started lifting weights in her 30s so she could carry 40-pound (18.14-kg) bags of dog food with ease.
"They certainly keep you honest about walking," she said. "Those big brown eyes make it impossible to say no."
She added that every human walking partner she has had, except her sister and her husband, quit because she went too fast.
"My dogs (all girls) have been steadfast," she said.
Reporting by Dorene Internicola; editing by Patricia Reaney; For the latest Reuters lifestyle news see: www.reuters.com/news/lifestyle