Daily dog walks work off weight for owners

Scientists Find that Participants also Engaged in Healthier Habits Following Study
By Christian Basi, University of Missouri-Columbia

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Dogs may be a man's best friend, but they also might be an instrumental tool in weight loss. A new study at the University of Missouri-Columbia has found that having a pet can encourage owners to get more exercise and results in more weight loss than most nationally known diet plans.

Our goal was to look for ways to increase the average exercise regimen, and we found being responsible for a pet, such as committing to walk a loaner dog, encouraged people who did not own dogs to walk more often and for longer periods of time," said Rebecca Johnson, associate professor of nursing and director of the College of Veterinary Medicine's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction. "Our first study group averaged a weight loss of 14 pounds during the one-year program.

The research project encouraged economically disadvantaged, disabled participants to walk with dogs on a regular, graduated schedule. Johnson, who collaborated with Richard Meadows, director of community practice at the Mizzou Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, said the participants began the program by walking 10 minutes per day, three times each week. Eventually, the participants walked up to 20 minutes per day, five times each week. During rainy days, the participants walked an inside route.

Prior to the program's initiation, personnel in the School of Health Professions' Missouri Mobile Health van gave each participant a full health assessment measuring such indicators as weight, lean body mass, bone density, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides, joint movement functional ability and mood.

Having participants engage in a shorter and longer program enabled the researchers to identify which program produced more weight loss. The first group walked for 50 weeks, while the second group walked for only 26 weeks. Johnson found that the first group averaged a weight loss of 14 pounds, a better result than most of the nationally known weight-loss plans report. Johnson said the weight loss in the second group was not statistically significant, but that the participants did engage in other activities that surprised the researchers.

"The results of the first group were wonderful," Johnson said. "Even though we didn't see a significant amount of weight loss in the group that walked for a shorter period of time, by the end of the study, all the participants were walking for longer periods of time and walking for daily errands instead of using some other type of transportation.

"In addition, two of the participants made a trip to the humane society to adopt animals, and several began volunteering to walk the dogs at the shelter. Many of them told us that they didn't necessarily walk in the study because they knew it was good for their health; they enjoyed walking because they knew it was good for the animals."

The dogs in the study were provided by the Pet Assisted Love and Support program at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. The dogs are pets of faculty and staff at the college and must pass rigorous safety training procedures and a "good citizenship" test before they are allowed to be in the program. In addition, all human participants in the program were fitted with new walking shoes.

The Missouri Foundation for Health funded the study. Johnson's next research project involves people taking animals to the gym. While walking only addresses certain aspects of fitness, Johnson believes that animals viewed as support companions while at the gym can increase a participant's self-esteem and encourage them to exercise in other ways that will benefit their health.