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How much exercise for a dog is too much?

23 Oct, 2020

Recently, I treated a couple of dogs from different households and different breeds, ages, and lifestyles, these dogs had one thing in common. In the words of their owners, these dogs were “well exercised”. These dogs engaged in strenuous exercise at least once a day (sometimes twice a day) for an hour or more, seven days a week. These dogs’ exercise routine included playing and running with large groups of dogs, running next to a bike or on the beach with a jogger, and chasing / herding activities. When I examined these dogs, they had abnormal gaits (not weight bearing evenly and using their joints abnormally), increased muscle tone (asymmetrically) and sensitivity to touch in specific areas.

The beneficial effects of exercise for humans and animals is well understood. Regular exercise provides both physical and psychological benefits including disease prevention, weight loss, improved mood and improved sleep quality. While the effects of exercise are well known, the minimum and maximum amount of exercise to elicit these effects is unknown.

For these dogs, the level of exercise was certainly mentally enriching and offered health benefits in terms of disease prevention and cardiovascular health, however the effects of exercise induced muscle damage were observable. The repeated bouts of high intensity exercise with limited recovery time was affecting these dogs’ musculature as evidenced by the dogs’ movement and sensitivity to touch in some areas.

How much exercise is too much?

When our dogs participate in rigorous exercise, some muscle damage occurs. Exercise induced muscle damage is characterised by the following:

  • Disruption to muscle fibres
  • Loss of muscle strength and power
  • Swelling
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Fatigue

The damaging effects of exercise are transitionary and proportionate to the intensity of the exercise and extent of previous muscle damage. The disruption of muscle fibres peaks at 1 – 3 days post exercise and remains elevated for up to 6 – 8 days. In humans, where there is less than 20% loss of muscle strength then muscle function is usually restored within two days of exercise. Where loss of muscle strength is greater than 20%, then it can take up to seven days for muscle strength to be restored.

Muscle strength and function are restored through the tissue repair and remodelling process. Exercise induced muscle damage stimulates cells such as satellite cells, inflammatory cells, vascular cells and stromal cells that facilitate tissue repair and remodelling. The interaction between these cell types determines the effectiveness and time for recovery from muscle damage.

With sufficient recovery time, the muscle repair and remodelling process has a beneficial, adaptive function referred to as the “repeated bout effect”. After an initial bout of exercise that induces muscle damage, the muscle, with sufficient recovery time, adapts to the exercise so muscle damage is less severe and can return to normal more rapidly after the next bout of exercise.

Without sufficient recovery time, however repeated bouts of high intensity exercise overwhelms the muscle repair process and affects its efficiency. A key factor that affects recovery is the extent of muscle damage. In so doing, the dog’s risk of injury increases with repeated bouts of exercise due to the decrease in physical performance.

What are the best ways to help a dog recover from exercise induced muscle damage?

To maximise our dogs’ performance, we need to balance exercise and recovery time. Providing a balance between exercise and recovery prevents maladaptation in the muscles. Optimising recovery time will help:

  • Manage muscle damage
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Reduce fatigue

The common features of effective recovery strategies include:

  • Restoring muscle function
  • Relieving muscle soreness
  • Reducing intra-muscular inflammation.


After a rigorous exercise session, allowing the dog a day or two to initiate the muscle repair process is an effective strategy for treating muscle damage.


Massage is effective in reducing muscle soreness and inflammation caused by high intensity exercise.

For more information please see:

Cold therapy

Cryotherapy or cold treatment is effective in reducing muscle soreness from exercise induced muscle damage.

For more information please see:

My dog needs to exercise daily, how can I prevent exercise induced muscle damage?

For people with high energy breeds or young dogs, their dogs may display undesirable behaviours if they are not exercised daily. So how can we assist dogs recover from exercise induced muscle damage without overwhelming the repair and remodelling processes?

A simple solution is to offer dogs a variety of exercise options over the course of a week that satisfy their physiological and psychological needs and provide sufficient recovery time.

Exercise for physical health benefits

When planning exercise sessions for the dog’s physical health benefits, consider exercising different parts of the dogs’ body over different sessions to prevent overloading. For example:

  • Free running with or without play with other dogs – Great for cardiovascular health and large limb muscles.
  • Swimming / water walking – Great for cardiovascular health and large limb muscles.
  • Power walking on lead to build stamina (physical and mental)
  • Hiking or walking on uneven ground with hills and different surfaces e.g. dirt, gravel, grass, mud – Great for building co-ordination, balance and proprioception.
  • Training sessions for high intensity dogs sports such as agility, flyball, obedience, endurance

Exercise for mental health benefits

Exercise for health benefits also provides psychological benefits. Here are some exercise options specifically for psychological benefits:

  • Sensory walks / sniffing walks, where the dog is off lead or on a long line and allowed to meander and sniff.
  • “Look and learn” outings – These include taking the dog to new places for them to safely experience new environments. These outings, particularly for young dogs, can easily be achieved by taking the dog for a drive and stopping to let them observe the world.
  • Games and training – Play enrichment games with the dog like scenting games, teaching tricks, and targeting games.

For dogs to benefit from the “repeated bout effect”, build a weekly exercise plan for your dog that includes a day of high intensity physical exercise followed by an activity that meets the dog’s psychological needs. After a high intensity exercise session, you may also consider cold treatment or massage to aid the dog’s recovery.

Full Stride provides remedial canine massage treatments so dogs can exercise regularly without pain or loss of muscle performance.

Until next time, enjoy your dogs.


Danese, E., Lippi, G., Sanchis-Gomar, F., Brocco, G., Rizzo, M., Banach, M., & Montagnana, M. (2017). Physical exercise and DNA injury: good or evil?. In Advances in Clinical Chemistry (Vol. 81, pp. 193-230). Elsevier.

Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An evidence-based approach for choosing post-exercise recovery techniques to reduce markers of muscle damage, soreness, fatigue, and inflammation: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Frontiers in Physiology, 9, 403.

Peake, J. M., Neubauer, O., Della Gatta, P. A., & Nosaka, K. (2017). Muscle damage and inflammation during recovery from exercise. Journal of applied physiology, 122(3), 559-570.

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