Walking The Dog – Exercise and Bonding for the Benefit of Both
The special bond between people and dogs goes back to prehistory – probably more than 14,000 years. There is no other species with so strong and beneficial a link to humanity, perhaps because dogs give us so many different kinds of support and pleasure. For centuries they worked at our sides, hunting, herding, and protecting. Now they are more likely to be beloved members of our households.
Scientific research has actually begun to quantify the value of dogs for human beings, gathering evidence that shows that people who own dogs and other pets are not only happier, but significantly healthier, than people without them. Having the companionship of a pet has been associated with physical improvements such as lower rates of cardiovascular disease, better survival rates following heart attacks, and psychological benefits including reduced levels of stress, depression, and loneliness.
“People and Pets Exercising Together”
One particularly important way dogs are contributing to the health of their human companions these days is through exercise. Many people who might not otherwise get any regular exercise at all are motivated by their dogs to get up and move at least two or three times a day. Given that as many as 37 percent of U.S. households include dogs, this common necessity offers a promising opportunity and has recently lead to an interest in developing and evaluating programs that take advantage of this shared activity of dogs and people in order to fight the growing problem of obesity that is affecting both species.
This was the concept behind The People and Pets Exercising Together (PPET) study. According to Dr. Robert Kushner at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Wellness Institute, PPET was “a state-of-the-art weight management program based on previous studies that show that people are more effective at losing weight and maintaining that weight loss when they do with a friend.” But in the PPET study, the role of the supportive friend was filled by the family dog .
The results of the study strongly supported the hypothesis that dogs would provide a highly effective form of social support, helping their owners maintain their diet and exercise goals. PPET outcomes showed that overweight people who embarked on a weight loss and exercise program in combination with their overweight dogs were more successful at sticking with their weight loss and exercise program than people who dieted and exercised alone.
For the study, the overweight people were given meal plans, pedometers, and guidance on diet and exercise, along with a plan for regular exercise with their dog. The recommended program included 30 minutes of physical activity of at least moderate intensity with the dogs at least three times a week. The dogs were also placed on a diet, and both humans and pets were weighed regularly to check their progress. Over the course of the 12-month study, average weight loss for the people was about 11 pounds, while the dogs were even more successful and lost about 12 pounds each.
One fact the PPET Study uncovered incidentally was that the people who owned dogs were already getting a good bit more exercise than those without dogs even before they started the weight-loss program. Other research has confirmed that people with dogs do tend to get more exercise even without making a special effort – an average of 300 minutes per week versus 168 minutes per week for non-dog owners, in one Canadian study . A U.S. study found that people who walked their dogs were closer to meeting recommended levels of “moderate to vigorous physical activity . And the National Cancer Institute found that people with dogs walked about 19 minutes more per week and were generally more likely to include walking among their leisure activities .
The health benefits that can be gained through dog walking or dog-ownership may be even more crucial for two special population groups children and the elderly. One study found that “Dog ownership may offer some protection from overweight among young children,” since children with dogs were less likely to become obese or overweight during their key early years . Walking regularly is essential for older people in order to maintain both bone strength and mobility. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutes conducted a three-year study that determined that owning and walking a dog in fact doubled the likelihood that people aged 71 to 82 would achieve the recommended levels of exercise .
Maintenance is the key. Starting an exercise regime is always easier than following through. Dogs obviously play a key role in helping even compelling their owners not just to begin but to continue an exercise routine. One study which focused on the relationship between obesity in dogs and their people concluded that overweight people without dogs might be well advised to get one and walk it three times a day, since “many exercise programs to prevent overweight seem to fail because of the lack of urgency to comply with the exercise regimen and owning a dog may be one way to increase compliance .
Human nature is such that both we and our human support systems are all too readily discouraged and distracted from our exercise goals by other impulses and time constraints. But dogs aren’t easily discouraged, and it’s a rare pup that isn’t ready to escort his or her person on a walk around the neighborhood or a romp in the park. Canine companionship has been shown to make a significant difference for women who don’t have anyone else available to walk with, increasing their walking levels by 31 percent in one study. Dogs also can help people feel safer when walking at night or in unfamiliar areas .
What’s good for us may be even better for our dogs. Now that leash laws and other elements of modern life make it increasingly uncommon and undesirable for dogs to roam freely, walking the dog has become essential if our pets are to get anything like the amount activity they want and need. Dogs that don’t receive regular attention and exercise are all too likely to develop health and behavior problems that can range from nuisance barking and digging to obesity and arthritis. Veterinarians attest that obesity is as serious and widespread a problem for dogs as it is for people, and brings with it an equal load of serious health consequences – dog diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular problems, and reduced life expectancy, to name only a few.
The benefits of walking your dog are richly reciprocal. According to one PPET human participant, “Caring for and loving my dog is what motivated me to be a part of this program. It is a real lifestyle change. We worked together, lost weight and kept it off over the course of a year, and now there’s no turning back! 
The benefits we receive from our pets are too numerous and valuable – loyalty, protection, companionship, unconditional love – for our dedication to be completely selfless. Providing them in return with the attention and exercise that will keep them happy and healthy is at least a partial repayment of what we owe them. Perhaps it’s this mutuality that has made the dog-human relationship so lasting. The bond between people and their dogs is one of the last links most people may have with the otherness of nature on a daily basis, even if it is just a walk in the park.
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About the author:
Matt Ntinou is a postdoctoral biochemist at Washington University School of Medicine and companion to Hera, his German shepherd. His most recent interest is in how obesity in both dogs and humans is linked by similar issues in food management, exercise and social factors. In his website he discusses current findings on obesity and weight loss and writes reviews on best diet plans for losing weight. He also offers a Medifast coupon and a Nutrisystem promotional code, two clinically studied weight loss programs.