Pet Exercise: Fitness with Fido
Say that you know someone who really needs to get more exercise. Now, if that someone had an enthusiastic exercise companion who needed physical activity as much they did, one who was always willing and ready to go, you would think they would be more likely to get out more often, right?
Wrong. Tragically wrong!
At least, that was the finding of researchers in Australia, where 40 percent of households have just such a companion: the family dog. But those Australian dogs seldom get the opportunity to encourage or accompany their owners on any kind of activity.
In fact, the majority of those pooches are prisoners of their owners' sedentary lifestyles. No amount of furry fervor seems very effective at getting the owners to walk those dogs, even though it would be good for evach party involved.
With humor seldom found in medical research, the investigators from the University of New South Wales wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia that the fitness impact of dog walking, "has been ignawed by researchers. Hence, this report cuts to the bone and unleashes an incisive public health argument for increasing dog walking."
They think their argument would apply to Americans, too. They don't offer any data indicating similar dog-walking habits among Yanks and Aussies, but they are similarly westernized societies, and the same percentage of both U.S. and Australian homes do have at least one dog. Though with more than 65 million poochie companions overall, Americans easily lead the world in dog ownership.
However, Americans also lead the world in obesity, and public health advocates have wrangled with various ideas to get Americans to eat less and move more.
Could the Aussies be on to something?
Here's what they found: Of almost 1,000 randomly sampled adults in New South Wales, the researchers reported that less than half achieved the U.S. Surgeon General's recommended 150 minutes of exercise weekly to achieve some "health enhancements."
The results of the study indicated that most dog owners are actually less likely than the non-owners to get their 150 minutes of exercise, either with or without Fido at their side. Most spent less than an hour a week actually walking with their dog. Fully 59 percent said they never walked their dog at all! Some 26 percent said they walked the dog up to 2.5 hours over a week, and only 15 percent said they spent at least 2.5 hours weekly on "walkies," as the Aussies call that doggie duty.
There is abundant data that show much diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even some cancers could be avoided altogether if only people were more physically active. With that in mind, the dog-walking researchers went on to establish some comically weighty--though scientifically legitimate--concepts about the "dog-attributable fraction" of disease that might be prevented if all dog owners were to get their pups out for that 2.5 hour standard.
The Australian researchers figured that if all down-under dog owners paraded their pooches 150 minutes a week, then 71 percent of the total Aussie population would be getting enough exercise! (Remember, a dog might have more than one owner.) And they estimated savings of about $175 million a year (Australian) in reduced costs for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and colon cancer.
And that's to say nothing of the costs of caring for those corpulent canines. Typically, we stick to issues of human health, but given Americans" famous devotion to their pets, perhaps the whole idea of fitness with Fido would be more likely to take off if Americans understood how much their dogs need their "walkies," too.
Statistics vary, but some experts say that up to 60 percent of our pooches are presently portly, almost mirroring the proportion of the people population. These dogs have many of the same health risks as overweight humans. Canine obesity is associated with heart and respiratory problems, diabetes, skeletal stress, and gastrointestinal disorders.
The U.S.'s biggest pet health insurance carrier, Veterinary Pet Insurance, says cardiac arrest claims for pets are up 47 percent, diabetes by 16 percent and hypertension by 27 percent. The Journal of Nutrition published a study showing that the pets of overweight owners were three times more likely to be obese than those of normal weight owners.
And while a person who has to struggle with their buttons may notice their own weight getting out of bounds, most people simply don't have the knowledge to recognize a weight problem developing in a cherished pet, so the animal gets heavier and less active, and closer to a premature death.
One long-term study by Purina showed that dogs kept to a healthy weight lived 15 percent longer than overweight dogs. That's about the same differential we see in humans.
We know that a nutrition and fitness program can turn that trend around for pets and their people, but all the tail-wagging and enthusiasm in the world won't do any good unless the people in charge--and that's the people--turn the doorknob and step on out.
THROUGH THICK & THIN: Pet Exercise
If you're the indulgent dog owner, consider that really pampering your pet means getting him healthy, right along with you! To reach the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendation of 150 minutes a week of exercise, you could start with just a 20-minute walk each day. Of couse, that's without stopping every ten feet to sniff a bush.