According to APPA, there are an estimated 65.1 million pet dogs in the USA alone and plenty of owners who could not live without their furry best friends. Many of these people will have been dog owners their whole lives, but not everyone had the opportunity to grow up with dogs in the house and are new to the game.
People all over the country, from all walks of life, and from every background imaginable own dogs and there is one thing that unites them all; walking your dog is pretty much the best thing ever. Some people have always known this and revel in taking their pooch on a daily walk, but others have only come to this realization recently after a pretty significant global event kept us all behind closed doors.
The Pandemic Effect
During the pandemic that saw us confined to our houses and local areas, we all started to spend as much time as possible outdoors. People suddenly realized that they had been spending too much time at work, gazing at computers and television screens. We started to realize something that longtime dog owners have known for a while; walking in nature with your dog makes you feel great.
Now, in a post-pandemic world, people have returned to normal life and their time spent with Mother Nature is a distant memory. We have returned to the drudgery of the working world and forgotten the benefits of the natural world on our overall wellness.
We must not forget to look out for our own physical and mental well-being as well as our dogs, so let’s take a look at why dog walks are just so darn wonderful, and how they can benefit us in some surprising ways.
Functional Versus Recreational Walks
There are two types of dog walk and whilst both are better than nothing, one is better than the other.
Functional walks are pretty much as the name suggests. They meet a purpose, tick a box, and ensure the dog gets outside for its minimum requirement of exercise. These walks are typically quite short, squeezed into a busy schedule, and don’t include much time for you or the dog to do anything in particular.
Nipping to the park, wandering down the street, or making the regular loop just so that the dog can do its business and hopefully be stimulated enough to not destroy any shoes when you are next at work. Whilst functional walks are sometimes a necessity, they should not become the norm for you and your dog.
In contrast, a recreational walk is a longer, more explorative walk that has huge benefits for the owner and the dog. Typically they are taken in beauty spots, on beaches, or in larger parks and people are often more likely to travel further from their local area.
The stimulation for your dog is apparent and the effects felt by you are undeniable; but what exactly is happening to us whilst we enjoy bonding with our pooch, and spending time in nature?
Your Mental Health and Nature
There is growing evidence that directly links the amount of time you spend in nature and your mental well-being. We’ve all experienced the moment where you can hear the wind in the leaves, smell the grass, and see the colors around you; but the effect this actually has on our brains is deeply significant.
Studies have found that spending as little as 10 minutes outdoors can have a huge impact on our psychological state, and can reduce the stressors that contribute to mental health issues like depression.
Eco-therapy is being used all over the world and offers some incredible benefits, even to those without mental health issues.
Adventure and wilderness therapy are also widely adopted in treating mental health issues, “studies show that spending time outside can improve mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. And, research shows that trying adventurous activities can also have positive effects on mental state.”
When you consider the bonds that we form with our dogs, the benefits become even more apparent; the motivation that having a dog can give you to get out and be active is plain for all to see. Fatigue and lethargy are serious symptoms of depression, but can be combated with simple motivation and activity.
You’ll also find yourself in something of a community as dog walkers frequently stop to chat with other dog owners; you may even be able to make friends and set specific ‘dog walk play dates’ to enjoy together.
Escape the Screens
The average American spends a little over 7 hours per day, every day, in front of a screen; that’s pretty scary when you consider we are only really awake for around 14 hours per day! So taking some time to put the phone down, step away from the computer, or switch off the TV is more important than ever.
Taking the dog out and practising mindfulness is a great way to rediscover yourself and destress after work, and you’ll find yourself being able to let go of stress and breathe a little more freely. Mindfulness is simply the practice of being present in a moment, observing your surroundings and truly taking things in.
It may sound silly, but it’s a surprisingly hard thing to achieve in today's world and many people struggle to find a truly relaxed state. Leave your phone at home, head outside, and take a minute to truly observe the natural things around you; you may be surprised at the results.
Increase your Physical Fitness
Now this one is probably the most obvious of all, however, it’s still worth mentioning. Any kind of physical activity is a good thing, and getting out for at least an hour per day will have a huge impact on your life. You’ll strengthen your body, improve your cardiovascular abilities, and feel much better for it.
Your dog can be your fitness coach to keep you motivated rain or shine, and as low-impact sports go, walking is one of the very best. You can stick to flat ground at a high pace, ramble through fields and parks, wander through the woods or climb the biggest hill you can find. Make use of varied terrain, follow rivers and visit waterfalls; there is an endless amount to see and do, just remember to bring water for you and the pup!
Improve your Sleep
One of the symptoms of mental illness that many people struggle with is sleeplessness, and one of the best ways you can combat this is with physical activity. You may have noticed that once your dog has been for a great big walk, they will fall into a deep recovery sleep; this is their way of recovering and it works in largely the same way for us.
Physical fatigue can aid in restful sleep, so if you are not quite getting your 8 hours then head out for a tough walk with the dog. You won’t fall asleep immediately but you’ll get your muscles working, and allow your brain to switch off.