How many times during a personal training session have you discussed pet antics with clients? Or what about the participant who shares a funny pet video after class, making everyone laugh? It’s no secret that pets and wellness are linked, and that our pets are emotional and physical keys to a healthier and well-balanced life—from a slobbery greeting punctuated with jumps of joy to a look that says “where have you been all day?” (even if it’s only been 10 minutes since you left the room). Pets are the perfect antidote to stress. Their capacity for unconditional love is incredibly healing.
And it appears our connection to pets is growing! According to the 2021–2022 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association, 70% of U.S. households, or about 90.5 million families, own a pet (APPA 2022). This is up from 67% in 2019. During the pandemic, nearly one in three Americans adopted a pet (III 2022).
But is there scientific evidence that animals can help us heal and thrive? And is pet ownership something personal trainers might want to factor into some of their program design?
Research: Pets and Wellness
Numerous studies have shown the positive effects that animals can have on our lives. Yes, improved physical fitness is one benefit! Whether clients go on long runs and walks with their dogs or they chase after a cat who likes to escape every time the door opens, moving with a pet increases physical activity.
According to a study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, walking dogs promotes engagement in and adherence to regular physical activity (Christian et al. 2018). Another study noted that, on average, dog walkers spent 22 minutes more per day walking compared with people who didn’t own a dog (Dall et al. 2017).
Having a pet is believed to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, according to the CDC (2021). Research also suggests that cat owners are 30% less likely to have a heart attack and nearly 40% less likely to have a stroke (Qureshi et al. 2009).
If you have clients recovering from joint-replacement surgery, Fido could help them depend less on pain pills and potentially heal faster. People who used pet therapy—the guided interaction between a person and a trained animal—while recovering from this type of surgery used less pain medications than those without a pet (Havey et al. 2014).
And what about stress? A March 2022 poll released by the American Psychological Association found that 87% of those surveyed said that their “mental health was greatly affected by what has felt like a constant stream of crises without a break over the past 2 years” (APA 2022). This is yet another reason why pet ownership can be more than just rewarding. It’s potentially lifesaving, especially when you consider that work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths and results in $190 billion in healthcare costs yearly (Blanding 2015). One study of college students found that just 10 minutes of interacting with cats and dogs produced a significant reduction in levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone (Pendry & Vandagriff 2019). See “Five Ways Pets Improve Mental Health,” left, for more.
Pets at the Gym?
The research may speak for itself, but what about allowing pets during sessions or in the fitness facility? Many people have joined the pet owners’ circle the past 2 years as stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders were mandated and more people decided they had the time and energy to devote to a four-legged friend and companion. Now that businesses and workplaces—including gyms—are reopening, what are new pet owners to do? Bring Spot with them? Or leave pets at home?
Many gyms have decided to open their doors to their members’ newfound friends. Granted, most of these establishments are smaller, single-facility businesses. Large chains (as with all businesses) have always allowed service dogs into their facilities. Perhaps someone will start a new trend where furry companions are allowed to come along and play with other dogs or sit and watch their owners work out. This may sound like heaven to an animal person, yet as a business owner, it presents some challenges. Below is a list of pros and cons for allowing animals (specifically dogs) into a workout facility:
- You could appeal to a new market of clients who might not go to the gym because they don’t want to leave their dogs at home alone.
- It’s a good way to convert previously virtual clients into in-person clients.
- It may lead to better commitment from your clients because you’re taking away the excuse of “I have to walk/feed my pet.”
- You might be able to charge more, since it’s a value-add and benefit, and it could also give you an edge over the competition.
- You can bring your own pet (a win-win-win for you, your clients and your pet!).
Another pro is something that personal trainer Andy Graydon of Glasgow, Scotland, had in mind. He began allowing his clients to bring their dogs to help make going to the gym feel less intimidating. His thought was that working out in a busy, crowded gym can be very daunting to the first-timer or person who wants to return to the gym after an extended time away. Graydon felt bringing pets would help clients get out of “comparison mode” and empower them to build confidence (Vundla 2019).
- You’ll need a dedicated place for pets to “do their business,” as well as places to get water and rest while the owner is working out.
- Other clients may not like dogs, fear them or have allergies.
- What if there’s a dog fight, growling, snarling, barking, running, getting loose or breaking things? Or if a dog interferes with a workout, knocks someone down, or bites or injures another dog or client?
- Insurance might not cover you, or the building you’re leasing may not be able to allow it for insurance reasons.
- You may need to take a closer look at liability coverage. What if there is a complaint or claim from a client who was knocked over, bitten, peed on, etc.? You’ll also need to amend your liability clauses and forms to include the necessary information and rules for bringing your pets. Make sure you establish protocol and rules/regulations for keeping control of the animal, and inform all clients—especially those with allergies—that you are a pet-friendly facility.
In general, you’ll need to put in the time to research guidelines and laws in your city and state and any building lease requirements. Yet the research shows that it could be worth your time and effort to offer this amenity to clients. After all, aren’t we in the business of helping others lead healthier lives?
A Pawsitive Path
Regardless of whether you allow your clients and participants to work out with their pets, it’s worth noting the significant connection between pets and wellness, and the positive impact animals can have on our lives. At the very least, you can encourage more dog walks, petting time, play time, etc. Pets can boost calorie expenditure and improve attitudes that help with overall behavior change. And if you come up with a creative way to include pets in your programming—all the better!
Five Ways Pets Improve Mental Health
- A reduction in work-related stress. Two out of three employees say work stresses them out, and 40% say their job gets in the way of their health. Studies show that pets in the workplace help reduce stress and improve employee satisfaction.
- An increase in productivity. When a dog joins a virtual meeting, group members rank their teammates higher on trust, team cohesion and camaraderie.
- Pets help manage anxiety. Pets provide companionship and support, which helps people who are struggling with mental health.
- More exercise, better health. Pets provide a reason to get outside, get some fresh air and get active, which is proven to improve mood, sleep and mental health.
- Pets provide a sense of togetherness. This special bond helps people feel less alone. When owners see, touch, hear or talk to their companion animals, it brings a sense of goodwill, joy, nurturing and happiness.
Source: American Heart Association 2021.
Pet Sweat Equity
Who doesn’t love the “happy dog” greeting after a long day of work? Or the purring from your cat when you are snuggled in front of the fireplace with a good book and a blanket? While those are obvious benefits of pet ownership, there are also duties, responsibilities, vet visits and bills to consider. While some might cringe at the thought of daily walks, feedings, litter box cleanup or picking up dog poop, there is also quite a bit of merit to the physical and mental aspects involved with these duties.
On the emotional or wellness side, the joy of unconditional love has been shown to help reduce anxiety, depression, blood pressure and heart rate. Feeding and caring for a pet helps people find reason to keep going when feeling down.
On the physical side, there are benefits to the movements themselves. For example, a daily walk or two can help a normally inactive individual add movement to their daily routine. And the bending, reaching and crouching or kneeling helps to build a range of motion in the body that is necessary for correct alignment and a strong and limber body in general. All great side effects of the somewhat less attractive duties of owning a pet.
Pets as Healers
Deck: Dogs and cats are therapists in their own way
Still not completely on board with the idea of your client’s dog or cat being a real, quantifiable source of health and wellness? Consider these expert opinions before discounting the idea of pet therapy. We’re not talking about service animals-—which are trained to provide assistance with daily care needs, such as medication reminders and pre-seizure alerts—but about everyday pets whose mere presence provides health benefits to those around them.
According to the Mayo Clinic (2020), “Pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.”
Pet therapy can help reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health challenges, including those
- receiving cancer treatment
- in long-term care facilities
- with cardiovascular diseases
- with dementia
- with post-traumatic stress disorder
- with anxiety
It’s highly likely that you have clients who fall within one of the categories above or who have a loved one who does, so it’s worth thinking about the possibilities of having pets as a part of your program design.
Portia’s Pet Projects
I have been lucky to have dogs and cats in my life since birth. I could never imagine a day without a pet in my life, even when I lived in Thailand for 2 years. During my job interview, I said I wouldn’t go if I couldn’t bring my cats with me! Was it challenging to figure out how to move three cats to Bangkok and then back again? Yes! And yet I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The emotional bond that I’d created with these cats—all rescued as kittens a year apart from each other—was pivotal in my decision. They also boosted my confidence in making a career- and life-changing decision to move across the world—not to mention the emotional support they provided as I acclimated to a new culture, country and lifestyle. My pets helped me overcome my initial depression and loneliness when I first arrived, and when I returned home.
AHA (American Heart Association). 2021. 5 ways pets help with stress and mental health. Accessed Mar. 24, 2022: heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-bond-for-life-pets/pets-and-mental-health.
APA (American Psychological Association). 2022. Stress in America. Accessed Mar. 22, 2022: apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/index.
APPA (American Pet Products Association). 2022. Pet industry market size, trends & ownership statistics. Accessed Mar. 21, 2022: americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp.
Blanding, M. 2015. Workplace stress responsible for up to $190B in annual U.S. healthcare costs. Accessed Mar. 22, 2022: forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2015/01/26/workplace-stress-responsible-for-up-to-190-billion-in-annual-u-s-heathcare-costs/?sh=ec59e7b235a2.
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2021. How to stay healthy around pets. Accessed Mar. 22, 2022: cdc.gov/healthypets/keeping-pets-and-people-healthy/how.html.
Christian, H., et al. 2018. Encouraging dog walking for health promotion and disease prevention. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 12 (3), 233–43.
Dall, P.M., et al. 2017. The influence of dog ownership on objective measures of free-living physical activity and sedentary behaviour in community-dwelling older adults: A longitudinal case-controlled study. BMC Public Health, 17 (496).
Havey, J., et al. 2014. The effect of animal-assisted therapy on pain medication use after joint replacement. Anthrozoös, 27 (3).
III (Insurance Information Institute). 2022. Facts + statistics: Pet ownership and insurance. Accessed Mar. 22, 2022: iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-pet-ownership-and-insurance.
Mayo Clinic. 2020. Pet therapy: Animals as healers. Accessed Mar. 24, 2022: mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/pet-therapy/art-20046342.
Pendry, P., & Vandagriff, J.L. 2019. Animal visitation program (AVP) reduces cortisol levels of university students: A randomized controlled trial. Aera Open. doi.org/10.1177/2332858419852592.
Qureshi, A.I., et al. 2009. Cat ownership and the risk of fatal cardiovascular diseases. Results from the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Study Mortality Follow-up Study. Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology, 2 (1), 132–35.
Vundla, A. 2019. Meet the Glasgow personal trainer who lets fitness fans bring dogs to the gym. Accessed Mar. 24, 2022: glasgowlive.co.uk/news/glasgow-news/meet-glasgow-personal-trainer-who-16667086.