[From Tufts December 2010 Issue]
Obesity has become a major public health threat, increasing at a rate faster than anyone could have imaged, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Twenty-seven percent, or 72 million, of U.S. adults are obese. Nine states had obesity rates of 30 percent or more last year, compared to three states in 2007.
At the same time, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine says obesity among dogs is also increasing at an alarming rate. Estimates are that 25 to 44 percent of dogs are clinically obese.
The health risks to both species include exacerabated arthritis and higher risks of ligament injuries, hypothyroidism, lower urinary tract disease, diabetes mellitus and surgical complications. Specifically in people, obesity is a risk factor for heart disease and high blood pressure.
The good news is that more and more owners are exercising with their dogs. They walk and run together, compete in agility or freestyle, and even — in a small but growing trend nationwide — take exercise classes together, including hybrid workouts such as “doga,” or yoga with dogs.
Exercise benefits dogs in the same ways that it does people. It helps them maintain a healthy weight and expands the capabilities of various body systems, such as the cardiovascular system.
“In moderation, it probably improves immune function in the same manner that it does for humans,” says Michael S. Davis, DVM, an internal medicine specialist and professor of physiological sciences at Oklahoma State University Center for Veterinary Health Sciences. “It also provides an opportunity to burn off excess mental energy, helping keep dogs from getting bored and finding ways of getting into trouble.”
When people and dogs exercise together, both can lose weight and keep it off. That might seem obvious, but a Northwestern Memorial Hospital study published in 2006 explains the reasons for the successful results. Dogs play a unique role as social support for people who are trying to get more physical activity and lose weight, says Robert F. Kushner, MD, lead author of the study, which was published in Obesity: A Research Journal. He spells out three factors that differentiate dogs from human exercise partners:
1. Dogs are what Dr. Kushner calls consistent initiators. “Every day they tug at your pants leg and stand at the door, leash in mouth and nudge you without giving up until you take them for a walk. People make excuses. Their meeting is running late, or they say, ‘Let’s skip it tonight. I worked too hard today.’ “
2. Dogs provide enjoyment. “People truly loved and enjoyed going out for walks with their dog,” Dr. Kushner says about participants in the study. “That level of enjoyment was not expressed at all in people that did not have a dog.”
3. Dogs evoke a feeling of parental pride. “People really got a kick out of and were proud of their dog when they were out walking,” Dr. Kushner says. “The neighbors would come pet them, the dogs were losing weight, and they could see the dog getting an extra spring in its step. They were really proud of that.”
Jennifer Radcliffe of Lake Forest, Calif., says her 15-pound terrier mix, 3-year-old Charlie, provides motivation. “I didn’t like jogging. Hated jogging. I was walking with him and he likes to pull, so I decided that if I was going to jog, I was going to jog with him. He helps me go. When I stop jogging, he’s ready to keep going. He keeps me wanting to go out and jog with him.”
Owners who want to participate in a more structured exercise routine can take advantage of exercise classes that combine workouts with wagging tails. At Leash Your Fitness in San Diego, Calif., Dawn Celapino leads dogs and people through routines that include cardio, balance, core, yoga and strength intervals, as well as dog obedience exercises covering cues such as sit, down and heel. Special events include camping, hiking trips and kayaking.
“Instead of the dog just walking and not having to think about anything, during our class they have to stop and sit, stop and lie down, heel,” Celapino says. “They’re being challenged mentally so it tires them a lot faster.”
Yoga instructor Amy Stevens of Scottsdale, Ariz., who produced a Yoga 4 Dogs DVD, leads classes that incorporate dogs into traditional yoga poses. Downward-facing dog, anyone? In the 30-minute workout, Stevens includes dogs by implementing training exercises such as sit, stay, down and shake and by having the person hold or lift the dog during a pose.
Beyond the relaxation that yoga provides for people, it also helps to relax the dog by providing physical and mental exercise. Physical benefits for them encompass stretching out their front and back legs and a five-minute massage at the end of the workout.
“Most importantly, we’ve found that it really helps with the bonding experience,” Stevens says. “It’s just you and your dog, focusing on each other.”