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Dogs need to get used to new levels of exercise just as humans do, so slowly increase your walking time and mileage when you start exercising together.

Editor’s note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.

CNN  — 

If you’re struggling to start or maintain a regular exercise regimen, the answer may be sitting faithfully at your feet.

Walking your dog is a fantastic way to get in shape, and it benefits both you and your pooch.

Some 69 million US households are home to at least one dog. Yet many dog owners never take their pets on a walk, or do so infrequently. Additionally, while 61% of dog owners walked their pup at least 10 minutes at a time, according to a 2011 survey in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, only 27% walked their dog 150 minutes per week — the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for adults’ weekly, moderate-intensity physical activity.

If you’re among those who are not that physically active, use your pooch as inspiration to head outside and start moving.

“If you can keep your dog happy and healthy at the same time that you’re keeping yourself healthy and bettering the dog-man bond, that’s great,” said Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer with the American Kennel Club. Canine obesity is the No. 1 preventive health problem in American dogs, Klein added.

Various studies indicate those who walk their dogs are more than 2.5 times as likely to achieve moderate-intensity physical activity, according to a 2015 journal article. That’s one reason the American Kennel Club created the AKC Fit Dog program. Any dog owner who walks their pet at least 30 minutes five times per week for at least three months receives a free magnet. You’re also eligible if you walk your dog at least 15 minutes 10 times per week for a minimum of three months.

As with humans, regular walks are crucial for a dog’s mental and physical health. “Getting your dog out in nature, getting fresh air and sunlight, is just as beneficial for dogs as for people,” said Dr. Victoria Tomasino, owner and medical director at GoodVets Boynton Beach and GoodVets Delray in Palm Beach County, Florida. “It awakens the senses in both parties.”

This combination of mental and physical stimulation can also help quash problematic canine behaviors. “Most dogs are bored to death,” said Dawn Celapino, founder of Leash Your Fitness, a San Diego-based business where clients and their dogs work out together. “They need mental stimulation and bonding with their owner, but a lot of people don’t realize that.”

What to know before heading outside

Before grabbing a leash, keep some things in mind, Klein said. Your dog should know basic commands such as sit, stay and come. Make sure to slowly increase your walking time and mileage, as dogs need to acclimate to new levels of exercise just as humans do.

Flat-faced breeds such as pugs have breathing issues and can’t do a lot of high-intensity or lengthy workouts, while a vet should sign off on any new activity for older dogs. All breeds can struggle with excessive heat or cold, too, so always check the weather.

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Regular walks are good for a dog’s mental and physical health, and the stimulation can also help quash problematic canine behaviors.

“You also have to be able to read your dog,” Klein said. “If your dog isn’t cooperating or doesn’t seem interested in a walk, try to find something different.”

Tomasino agreed that not all dogs enjoy walks. “You see quite often that dogs who are supposed to be high-energy prefer to be couch potatoes,” she said. “It comes down to personality, and you have to respect that.”

Thankfully, there are plenty of other ways to be active with your pooch. You can hike, swim, bike, in-line skate , play Frisbee or do circuit training with your dog. There are herding and retrieving events, both organized and competitive, that mimic the activities certain dogs were bred to do. You can harness yourself to a larger-breed dog and cross-country ski together, a sport known as skijoring, or try canicross. Also known as urban mushing, it involves attaching yourself to your dog via a waist harness and bungee leash, then going for a run.

READ MORE: Sign up for CNN’s Fitness, But Better newsletter series. Our seven-part guide will help you ease into a healthy routine, backed by experts.

Start slow and prioritize safety

No matter the exercise, be mindful of your pet’s health and safety. Biking, for example, is much easier for the human who is peddling than the dog that’s running. “I see people riding bikes with a dog, and the dog is gasping for breath and limping,” Tomasino said. “But the person is so focused on biking, they’re not paying attention to their dog.”

She also nixed using retractable leashes during higher-speed activities such as in-line skating. “With retractable leashes, you have no control over that dog,” Tomasino said. “If another dog is coming at you, for example, that’s dangerous for you and the dog. You need them close to you so you can correct and change course if need be.”

Courtesy Brawner Raymond
"In general, it is a very good thing for animals to sleep with their people," said Dr. Dana Varble, the chief veterinary officer for the North American Veterinary Community.

"Do you really think there's enough room for you?" -- Delilah, a 10-year-old Siberian husky.
Stephanie Moody/Rue's Rescue & Sanctuary
"Who says everyone can't fit in the bed? As long as I get the biggest part so I can spread out, I'm cool." -- Beast (bottom right), a 106-pound European Doberman, with (clockwise from bottom left) his sisters Buttercup and Bear; brother Joey, laying on their human; and sister Bailey.
David Allan
"Hi I'm Tessie, a 4-year-old Australian cattle dog. I love sleeping with my girls so much that when they go to the store i snuggle with their bed toys until they get back."
Sandee LaMotte/CNN
"In the animal world, animals who are bonded tend to sleep together," Varble said.

Lynx (top) and Luna (bottom) are 2-year-old Siberian Forest cats.
Courtesy Trent Loyd
"Come on, Dad, that's enough sports for tonight. It's time for bed." -- Ellie, a 6-year-old German shorthaired pointer, who likes to sleep under the covers next to her humans.
Courtesy Stephanie Moody/Rue's Rescue & Sanctuary
Dogs and cats who share their human's bed tend to have a "higher trust level and a tighter bond with the humans that are in their lives. It's a big display of trust on their part," Varble said.

Banshee, a 6-year-old Husky mix, is a rescue who survived heartworms.
Courtesy Trent Loyd
"When a dog turns their back to you, it's an incredible sign of trust because that is a very vulnerable position for them -- they can't keep watch for danger," Varble said.

Mason, a 3-year-old lab mix, loves to sleep next to his dad every night but hates covers.
Sandee LaMotte/CNN
"Dogs and cats who are more closely bonded with their humans get additional health benefits," Varble said, including increases in oxytocin and dopamine, the feel-good hormones.

"What? I don't snore!" -- Luna, a 2-year-old Siberian Forest cat.
Courtesy Ryan Pollyea
"Make sure all the pets in your house are up to date on flea, tick and internal parasite prevention, especially if you're going to have them in your bed," Varble advised.

Molly (left), a 15-year-old cockapoo mix, likes to sleep in her human's armpit, while Evie (right) prefers the end of the bed and hates to be woken up early.
Courtesy Ryan Pollyea
"Animals have different personalities like we do," Varble said. "Some people sleep with the lights on and some people like to sleep in the complete dark. One pet might have more of a protective, another more of an assertive personality."

Evie, a 4-year-old Jack Russell terrier mix, has been known to crawl onto her human if she needs more affection.
Courtesy Stephanie Moody/Rue's Rescue & Sanctuary
A dog who sleeps at the end of the bed with their face toward the door might have a more protective personality, Varble said.

"Thank goodness that bed hog Beast is gone so I can catch up on my zzz's." -- Buttercup, a 4-year-old beagle-bulldog mix.
Sandee LaMotte/CNN
"I may look like an angel, but in the night I have been known to walk or sit on my humans and try to smell their breath. I also enjoy draping my 2-foot-long body across their necks at about 3 a.m." -- Lynx, a 2-year-old Siberian Forest cat.

Remember to be patient when your dog is learning a new activity, too. “Start slow,” Celapino said. “They might not understand what you want them to do, and they need to work up to things. But don’t discount your dog. Dogs can do a lot of things.”

Celapino cited her canine-human fitness classes as an example. During a recent session at a local park, dogs had to sit while their human was performing an exercise, then both ran a lap around the park. “We’re constantly moving, then stopping in my classes, which makes your dog have to think about everything they do,” she said. “That’s what tires them out.”

No matter the activity you land on, always tune into your pet. “Exercising is really good bonding for you and your dog, as long as you stay off your phone,” Celapino said.

Klein agreed. “What dogs enjoy most is spending time with their people,” he said.

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specializes in hiking, travel and fitness.