Best Dog Exercise for Longevity

Best Dog Exercise for Longevity

Note: This deep-dive into the best dog exercise for longevity is the third in a series of articles on life extension for dogs. We’ve already done pieces on how dental health impacts dog longevity and the best dog longevity diet. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll also explore dog medical tests and procedures, dog supplements and medicines, and more!

As many as 25% of the nearly 90 million dogs in the United States are diagnosed with some form of arthritis during their lives.

Large dogs are more prone to it, but other things can cause your pup to develop this painful joint disease.

These include genetics, but they also include prior injury, as well as participation in certain types of exercise like agility competitions and flyball.

In researching how best to give my Swiss Mountain Dog, Kipling, as long and healthy a life as possible, I wanted to understand exactly what role exercise plays in dog longevity.

I had lots of questions, like:

  • Does walking your dog make them live longer?
  • How much exercise does a puppy need?
  • What’s the best exercise for large dogs?
  • How does exercise improve a dog’s health?
  • What’s the best type of exercise for old dogs?
best dog exercise for longevity

I spent a lot of time looking at what the research studies tell us and it seems like for all dogs, not just large-breed or older dogs, lower-impact exercise, done for longer periods, may be ideal to help them live a long, pain-free life.

Let’s look at why.

Note: Save the Dog Aging Project!
One of the best sources for research studies on dog longevity has been the Dog Aging Project, an NIH-funded study of over 45,000 dogs that’s already provided landmark insights into how to make dogs (and eventually people!) live longer. Unfortunately, as of publication in 2024, NIH is threatening to pull the funding for this crucial scientific endeavor. Please help save the Dog Aging Project by signing this petition: You can also donate directly to the project here:

We’re publishing several more articles in our dog longevity series over the next few weeks, sign up below to be notified when they go live!

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Exercise for dog life extension

We all know we need to exercise more, but is this also true for dogs?

Most studies seem to find lots of benefits from exercise for your dog, including weight management, increases in bone density, and mental health as well.

For instance, a 2022 study from the Dog Aging Project found that, “Physical activity was robustly associated with better cognitive outcomes in dogs.”

But while being overweight or obese can drastically shorten your dog’s life (as we covered in the dog longevity diet article), and exercise for dogs (as with humans) is important for maintaining healthy weight, certain types of high-impact exercise activities, especially in large dogs, can cause joint damage and osteoarthritis that could also lead to a shorter lifespan.

Up to a quarter or more of all dogs will get osteoarthritis, which is a painful disease affecting the cartilage between joints and that makes physical activity more difficult. It can lead to misery and death for your dog and, while it is genetic, there are things you as a dog owner can do to delay and mitigate it, especially around exercise and preventing injury. 

So how can we walk the tightrope between enough exercise, of the right type, but not too much, for our dogs?

In spending far too many days delving into the research, I came away with the following insights into the best exercise for dogs:

  1. Don’t start high-impact exercise too young with your dog (but low-impact exercise and playing is fine).
  2. High-impact exercise at any age (including ball throwing and jumping) may be bad for your dog’s joints and long-term risk for injuries.
  3. Long, low-impact exercise, like waking with extra weight (possibly with a weight vest or weighted saddlebags), or swimming may be ideal for most dogs.
  4. Heat risk for dogs is huge! Don’t do too much exercise on hot days or during heat waves. Heat stroke and exercise-induced collapse (EIC) in dogs can lead to death.
  5. Maybe neuter/spay your dogs later in life?

And now onto the fun sciencey stuff!

Puppies and exercise

Puppies, because their joints, bones, and musculature are all still developing, seem to be at higher risk of certain types of injuries due to high-impact exercise, like jumping and chasing balls, that can cause health problems later in life and potentially limit their longevity.

For instance, A 2022 survey study of dogs participating in agility competitions found, “Starting jump training at an earlier age was associated with greater risk of injury relative to starting after 18 months.”

A 2020 review of risk factors for the development of osteoarthritis in dogs looked at 62 different studies. They found that, “exercise levels and types (such as chasing balls/toys and regularly playing with other dogs), throughout life but particularly when young, are risk factors for joint disease development, due to over-use of and damage to (developing) joints.”

One of the studies cited in that review, done in Norway in 2012, also notes, “Puppies walking on stairs from birth to 3 months of age had an increased risk of developing [hip dysplasia].” (Kipling was actually afraid to climb and descend stairs until about 3-4 months old, which may have been instinctual, looking at this evidence).

should puppies walk down stairs
Not a fan of stairs at this age, and for good reason!

However, the same study suggested that off-leash exercise while young (0-3 months) actually reduces the risk for osteoarthritis (specifically hip dysplasia), and the earlier-mentioned review found that puppies kept indoors through their growth period were at higher risk of osteoarthritis than those allowed outdoors to play and exercise.

And other studies suggest that low-impact exercise, even if done for long periods of time, was not harmful to puppies.

For example, a 1988 study of beagle puppies aged 15-40 weeks had them run uphill on treadmills for up to an hour each day, at 4 km/h speeds. The researchers found no degradation in the dogs’ joint cartilage or anything else suggesting the prolonged, moderate exercise had harmed the dogs’ development.

Another study of dogs, from 1996, had them exercise “on a treadmill at 3 km/hr for 75 minutes 5 days a week for 527 weeks while carrying jackets weighing 130% of their body weight.”

(FYI, 527 weeks is over 10 years!)

dog exercise weight vest
He can carry our water *and* build good muscle.

They observed, “a lifetime of regular weight bearing exercise in dogs with normal joints did not cause alterations in the structure and mechanical properties of articular cartilage that might lead to joint degeneration.” I.e., none of the dogs got osteoarthritis.

So, it seems like a rough exercise guide for puppies would look like:

  • Avoid having your puppy do big jumps (like in and out of a car), frequent stair climbing, running after balls, or rough-housing too much with other pups until at least three months old.
  • Long walks and off-leash play (especially outdoors, like in a fenced yard) seem perfectly fine for young dogs and may even help prevent health issues later in life.

Of course, the twist here is that the types of high-impact exercises—like jumping and ball-chasing—that are bad for puppies may not be good for dogs of any age.

Jumping and high-impact exercise may be bad for all dogs

Puppies aren’t the only ones who can be injured from high-impact exercises like jumping.

While puppies who started jump training earlier in life were more prone to injury, adult dogs doing agility competitions with lots of jumping, sharp turns, and sudden speed changes get injured at astonishing rates.

A 2009 study of 1,627 dogs participating in agility competitions found that up to 20% of them were injured while competing while a total of 33% had sustained injuries in general.

In a 2022 survey of dogs competing in agility, it was found that 41.4% had injuries, with 36% of those having sustained serious injuries.

Up to one-third of dogs participating in flyball competitions are injured, according to a 2023 study, and the risk of injuries increased the faster a dog completed the course.

dog competition exercise
Competition! (This kind is probably fine though…)

And other high-impact, high-speed activities seem to increase the risk of injury as well.

A 2023 survey of active working dogs found that up to 45.5% have some form of musculoskeletal injury.

Even just jumping from a car trunk can be incredibly hard on a dog’s joints. A 2018 study found that dogs jumping from the height of most car trunks put four times more force on their knees and other joints compared to taking a normal step.

You might look into getting a dog car ramp (after this research I certainly intend to for Kipling!) which can help prevent joint damage from jumping out of cars onto hard surfaces like concrete.

Chasing balls may also be a big risk factor for joint injury. The stresses of sudden sharp turns, jumps, and stops are so bad that many veterinarians argue dogs shouldn’t chase balls at all, and certainly not for extended periods of time, or especially downhill.

Injured joints may be more likely to develop arthritis later in life, according to a review from 2000:

“In the dogs with normal knees but no articular sensory input, no signs of arthritis had developed after 64 weeks. By eight weeks, dogs with sensory input and injury to the anterior cruciate ligament showed early stages of arthritis, which progressed to moderate-to-severe arthritis by 18 weeks. Dogs with neither knee sensation nor a functioning anterior cruciate ligament showed signs of arthritis in only two weeks and severe arthritis by eight weeks.”

If that’s true, the best type of exercise to help prevent osteoarthritis in dogs may be the kind that minimizes the risk of joint injury.

The best longevity exercise for dogs: long, low-impact exercise

Recall the puppy studies above showing that long bouts of relatively low-impact exercise like walking and jogging (even when done with weighted jackets, every day, over periods of more than ten years) didn’t seem to have adverse effects on dogs?

This also seems to be true of running.

In fact, running only seemed to potentially become an issue when the dogs were made to run extreme distances every day. And even then the possible problems were very minimal.

A 1993 study examined the impact of dogs running in excess of 40 km (about 25 miles) per day, every day for a full year. Even with that level of extreme exercise, there were only minor decreases in joint cartilage that the study’s authors said may, over a long time, “affect the condition of articular cartilage.”

That tepid possibility of cartilage damage is from a dog running the equivalent of a full marathon every single day for a year. My guess is most dog owners won’t be doing that (or even close to that) every day.

dog running
Running in fields is even more fun.

So walking, jogging, and even running all seem like pretty healthy ways to exercise your dog, certainly compared to jumping and chasing balls.

In fact, even for dogs who already have joint issues like hip arthritis, exercise seems to be helpful, and the more the dogs exercise, the more helpful it is. This was the finding of a 2013 study that suggested dogs with hip dysplasia who exercised for more than 60 minutes a day had lower lameness scores than those who exercised for less than 20 minutes a day.

A 2020 study suggested that habitual activity did not put most dogs at risk of injury, but that being overweight did increase the risk of injury.

A 2020 study suggested that habitual activity did not put most dogs at risk of injury, but that being overweight did increase the risk of injury.

Other types of exercise may also be good for preventing joint injuries, including core strengthening exercises.

A 2022 survey of dogs participating in agility contests found that certain dog exercise activities decreased the risk of ligament rupture during competition. These were, “dock diving, barn hunt, nose work, or lure coursing/racing activities and participation in core balance and strength exercises at least weekly.”

They also concluded, “It appears that short or long walks such as occur on a casual leash walk may be associated with decreased risk of CCLR [Cranial Cruciate Ligament Rupture] if done daily but minimal positive or negative effect when done on a less frequent basis.” Though interestingly, they found hiking and running may increase risk of injury.

Unfortunately, the study didn’t really define “core balance and strength exercises,” so it’s anyone’s guess what survey respondents included under that umbrella.

The American Kennel Club includes “dog pushups” (going from sit, to down, to standing), balance practice (like on a wobble board), “figure eights” through your legs, and teaching your dog to bow all as key core strengthening exercises for dogs. Doing these “at least weekly” as per the study (i.e. probably more like 2-3 times weekly) may help reduce your dog’s risk of exercise injury.

Another exercise that may improve your dog’s lifespan?

Playing and living with other dogs.

According to a 2023 survey from the Dog Aging Project, “Dogs with other dogs and/or other pets in their house were also rated as significantly healthier than dogs with fewer household companions.”

Heat exhaustion in dogs: don’t exercise your dog on hot days!

I used to complain that Kipling was a baby when it came to heat.

He’s a mountain dog, bred for the cold winters of the Swiss Alps, with a black coat and a thick undercoat to keep him warm in neck-deep snow drifts.

But that means even in relatively mild (to me) spring and summer temperatures of mid-to-high 70s and low 80s Fahrenheit, he’s sporting a thick fur jacket that he can’t take off.

And it turns out, in terms of exercise at those temperatures, he may be right to be a baby because, for him, it could be deadly.

dog heatstroke risk
Not at all a fan of walking in the heat…

A 2020 study of the veterinary records of over 900,000 dogs found that exercise-induced heatstroke “was the most common trigger of heat-related illness in dogs.” They also found that, in dogs, “heatstroke caused by exercise was just as likely to kill as heatstroke from a hot car.”

And heatstroke is deadly in dogs. According to a 2017 review, “the mortality rate is around 50%, similar to that of human heatstroke victims.”

Heatstroke is deadly in dogs. According to a 2017 review, “the mortality rate is around 50%, similar to that of human heatstroke victims.”

During hot days, try to limit strenuous exercise for your dog, and keep a sharp eye out for any of the signs of heat stroke in dogs, including, “acute collapse, [abnormally rapid and shallow breathing], spontaneous bleeding, shock signs and mental abnormalities, including depression, disorientation or delirium, seizures, stupor and coma.”

Exercise Induced Collapse (EIC) in dogs

Some dogs have a genetic abnormality in their DNM1 gene that may cause them to collapse and even die after short bouts of exercise.

This mutation seems prevalent in a lot of popular dog breeds, including labrador retrievers, at rates of up to 14% of certain breeds, with as much as 38% being carriers.

According to the canine genetics lab at the University of Minnesota, which has been studying EIC in dogs for over a decade, exercise-induced collapse dog symptoms to look out for include:

“The first thing noted is usually a rocking or forced gait. The rear limbs then become weak and unable to support weight. Many affected dogs will continue to run while dragging their back legs. Some of the dogs appear to be uncoordinated, especially in the rear limbs, with a wide-based, long, loose stride.”

Dog genetic tests can help you identify if your dog has this condition, a few dog DNA tests that test for DNM1 mutations are:

If you do learn your dog has EIC genetics, you may want to stick to exercise activities that won’t trigger an episode. These include low-intensity, low-excitement exercise activities like walking and sniffing, while also avoiding hot weather.

Maybe wait to neuter or spay your dog?

A lot of studies I came across on dog joint injuries and osteoarthritis seemed to find that a big risk factor was early-life neutering or spaying (a “gonadectomy” in medical parlance).

I mean, here’s just the conclusions from a few of them:

  • “Neutered individuals were significantly more likely to have a joint disease compared to entire individuals in all studies that explored neutering as a risk factor” from a 2020 systematic review.
  • “Gonadectomy, and younger age at gonadectomy were significantly associated with higher risks of osteoarthritis” from a 2023 study of over 131,000 dogs.
  • “Gonad removal during the 24-month developmental period is adversely associated with three measures of susceptibility—increased incidence of CCL rupture, multiplicity (bilateral rupture), and accelerated time to initial CCL failure.” From a 2023 study on rottweilers.
  • “Compared to intact dogs, dogs who were ≤ 6 months at gonadectomy had increased risk for orthopedic injury” from a 2019 study of golden retrievers.

I’m not a vet, but this all seems pretty damning to me and is definitely making me think hard about whether or not to get Kipling neutered at all.

I intend to explore this subject a lot deeper when we cover medical procedures and tests for dog longevity next week.

Make sure to sign up so you’ll be emailed when that article comes out!

My dog exercise routine for Kipling

Putting it all together, he’s what I’ve decided on as the best ways to exercise your dog for longevity, and what I intend to do for our dog Kipling going forward:

  • An hour-plus every day of outdoor, off-leash walking, including allowing him time for “nose work” (sniffing stuff).
  • Supplementing walks a couple times a week with weighted saddlebags or a weight jacket.
  • 2-3, ten-minute sessions a week of core exercises, including dog pushups and bows.
  • Buying a doggie car ramp so he’s not jumping onto concrete frequently.
  • Limiting fetch and ball-chasing to no more than 1-2 throws, 1-2 times a week (luckily Kipling isn’t ball-obsessed so this isn’t a big issue for us).

And as I said, I’ll be exploring the issue of dog medical procedures for longevity next week, and after that we’ll have another article looking into dog supplements (including those that may help with osteoarthritis) so sign up below to get those articles in your inbox as soon as I hit “publish!”

Get notified when we publish new posts!

Note: Save the Dog Aging Project!
One of the best sources for research studies on dog longevity has been the Dog Aging Project, an NIH-funded study of over 45,000 dogs that’s already provided landmark insights into how to make dogs (and eventually people!) live longer. Unfortunately, as of publication in 2024, NIH is threatening to pull the funding for this crucial scientific endeavor. Please help save the Dog Aging Project by signing this petition: You can also donate directly to the project here:


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