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Fitness and Health

Fitness and health go hand in hand, and this section of our health library is devoted to exploring the relationship between these two very important aspects of life.

Fitness with Fido: Health for Dog Owners

Fitness with Fido: Health for Dog Owners

Say you know someone who really needs to get more exercise. 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’d think they’d 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! Surprisingly those Australian dogs seldom get the opportunity to accompany their owners on any kind of activity.

In fact, the majority of the pooches are prisoners of their owners’ sedentary lifestyles. No amount of furry fervor seems effective at getting the owners to walk thier dogs, even though it would be good for everyone 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.”

Their argument applies to Americans, as well. The researchers do not offer any data indicating similar dog-walking habits among Yanks and Aussies, but both societies are similarly Westernized. Further, the same percentage of U.S. and Australian homes have at least one dog. With more than 65 million furry companions overall, Americans easily lead the world in dog ownership.

Americans also lead the world in obesity, and public health advocates have wrangled with various initiatives to get Americans to eat less and exercise 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. These 150 minutes are required to achieve some “health enhancements.”

Most dog owners in the sample (about half had dogs) were 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. A surprising 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 this doggie duty.

There is myriad data that show that diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even some cancers can be avoided altogether if people became 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 dog owners paraded their pooches around the neighborhood for 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.) 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 poor, 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 their human companions. 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.

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. The result is a heavier and less active pet who is likely to die a premature death.

One long-term study by Purina showed that dogs kept at a healthy weight lived 15 percent longer than did overweight dogs. That’s about the data as we see in humans.

We know that a nutrition and fitness program can turn that trend around for pets and their owners, but all the tail-wagging and enthusiasm in the world won’t do any good unless those in charge—the people—turn the knob and step on out.

If you’re the indulgent dog owner, consider that really pampering your pet means keeping him healthy, right along with yourself! To reach the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendation of 150 minutes a week of exercise, your Fitness with Fido program could start with just a 20-minute walk each day—of course, that’s without stopping every ten feet to sniff a bush.

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