November 2014 Issue

Get Fit With Fido
By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 26 No. 11 P. 58

Exercising with a dog can serve as a great motivator for regular physical activity that leads to weight loss.

As the prevalence of obesity and overweight has increased in Americans, so has its prevalence in our pets. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, about 53% of dogs are obese or overweight.1 Apparently, America's poor dietary habits have been imposed on pets by their owners, most likely as a result of indulgence. Pet-related spending exceeds $50 billion annually, so it isn't surprising that services have emerged to address dog obesity. In major urban areas such as New York City and Philadelphia, an overweight dog can run on a canine treadmill or swim in special pools with the guidance of a trainer while the owner can shop or hit the human gym. Organized playgroups to help exercise pets are available at many dog parks and doggie daycare facilities, and dog walking is a booming business. While these efforts to help dogs lose weight are appreciated by veterinarians, a better investment would be owners spending their time exercising with their dogs rather than spending their money on exercise for their dog.

In 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) published a scientific statement on the influence of pet ownership on cardiovascular disease risk factors. The AHA noted that owning pets, particularly dogs, may have a causal role in reducing cardiovascular risk, lowering blood pressure, and positively influencing physical activity. They also noted that dogs may strengthen engagement in a weight-loss program and provide social support—a significant predictor of adherence to behavior change over time. The AHA scientific statement is available at

Of course, exercising with canine companionship isn't a new idea, but for many, using the dog-human relationship as a weight-loss intervention is. The first study to demonstrate the effectiveness of this relationship for weight loss was published in 2006.2 The People and Pets Exercising Together study paired 36 overweight or obese people with an obese dog for one year. These pairs were compared with 56 overweight or obese people without dogs. The human participants received dietary and physical activity counseling, and the dogs received a calorie-controlled prescription food. At one year, mean weight loss was approximately 5% for humans in both groups and 15% for dogs. Though time spent on weekly physical activity was similar, two-thirds of the total physical activity in the human-dog pairs was spent exercising together. The researchers speculated that the human-dog bond could be used as social support for both human and pet weight loss.

Latest Research
Since 2006, more research results have been published on the health benefits of dog ownership, with a focus on physical activity for both dog and owner, including the following:

• A 2013 meta-analysis of 29 studies on dog ownership and physical activity found that dog owners engaged in more walking and other physical activities than non-dog owners.3 The median total weekly exercise of 160 minutes for dog owners fulfills the 150 minutes weekly of moderate-intensity aerobic activity mentioned in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

• A 2013 randomized controlled trial called the Children, Parents, and Pets Exercising Together study was the first to report on dog-based physical activity motivation in 25 families with children aged 9 to 11. Children in families using a dog-walking intervention for activity promotion had greater total physical activity over 10 weeks than the control group, though the difference wasn't significant. Dog walking was moderate to vigorous physical activity approximately 20% of the time for parents and 40% of the time for children.4

• An August 2014 systematic review examined the factors associated with owners' dog-walking behaviors in studies published from 1990 to 2012. Strength of the dog-owner relationship and sense of obligation to the dog, as well as access to dog-friendly exercise areas seem to create incentive for regular dog walking as exercise. Of note, this review was published in a journal dedicated to preventive medicine.5

• A September 2014 study of dog owners aged 65 and older found that dog ownership was associated with higher physical activity levels and positive attitude toward exercise.6

These studies suggest that dogs can provide motivation to begin and maintain regular physical activity to the mutual benefit of owners and their dogs. Families with children also may increase exercise with canine companionship. For your clients who own dogs, encouraging them to exercise with their dog may improve social support for physical activity and weight loss and provide motivation previously lacking in their exercise regimen. It's easy to skip the gym on the way home from work or opt for TV instead of a walk. But it's more challenging to deny an excited dog begging for a walk. The success of dog-motivated exercise will depend on your client's mindset. Those clients who consider their dogs family members rather than property are more likely to be motivated by activities that involve their dogs. You also can advise your clients to investigate dog playgroups organized by local dog parks or community groups. Involving another dog owner adds to motivation to meet regularly for leashed walking or off-leash hiking and provides more fun for friendly, playful dogs.

Exercise Options
Exercising with a dog isn't limited to walking, hiking, and running. Depending on the dog's breed and behavior, there are many options for fun play that will give clients and their dogs exercise. Dogs love games, and a simple game of tag can be modified to give owners a workout, too. Grabbing a toy or ball and running with it gives you some cardio interval training and your dog a fun game of chase. Holding the ball or toy while doing squats will give dogs a target to jump to while your clients condition their leg muscles. This game also can be played while doing abdominal crunches. Clients should be prepared for enthusiastic jumping. Herding breeds, such as corgis, Australian shepherds, and border collies, are good companions for any game that involves the herding instinct. At my local park, I used to watch a man and his corgi play soccer; he kicked the ball and his dog chased and rolled it while he tried to grab it back. Owners of huskies and malamutes can engage sledding instincts in cooler weather, using rollerblades themselves while the dogs pull them via harness and leash. Skijoring employs the same principle in snow, with the owner on skis.

"Doga" is increasing in popularity; owners bring their dogs to a yoga class. Dogs are natural yogis when stretching, but their good behavior in a class setting with other dogs and humans will require training. Funny YouTube videos of pets "helping" owners have been circulating around the Internet. Clients who enjoy home workouts on the floor, such as yoga and Pilates, easily can incorporate a dog toy to engage their dogs in play. Some clients won't like the interruption, but for those who have trouble concentrating during home workouts, a dog's participation could provide motivation and entertainment to help get them through the workout.

For competitive clients with active dogs, agility training and competition is a great activity. Dogs can run an obstacle course with the owner running beside them giving training cues. Agility obstacles are available to use in the backyard if traveling to competitions is too time-consuming. Some dog parks offer agility classes and equipment for private use.

If you have clients who love dogs but are unable to own one, options are available for canine companionship. Most local animal shelters have community dog-walking programs that recruit volunteers to walk dogs. Generally, a few brief training sessions are required first. Your clients may have busy friends or neighbors who would appreciate a daily walk or run for their dogs. For older clients who may be retired or those looking for part-time work, local pet sitters require dog walkers daily for owners who work long hours. A background check and some training may be required.

Looking to capitalize on the growth in human and canine obesity and the trend in dog-related spending? Check out the first online human/canine fitness certification at The company provides training in human-dog fitness programs and start-up business tools. Certified personal trainers receive a discount on the cost of online certification. The K9 Fit Club website also provides a list of human-dog fitness class opportunities by geographic area. The program was developed with input from fitness trainers, veterinarians, dog trainers, and physicians.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care research analyst/consultant in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area.

1. Pet obesity remains at epidemic levels according to new research. Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website. March 31, 2014.

2. Kushner RF, Blatner DJ, Jewell DE, Rudloff K. The PPET Study: people and pets exercising together. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2006;14(10):1762-1770.

3. Christian HE, Westgarth C, Bauman A, et al. Dog ownership and physical activity: a review of the evidence. J Phys Act Health. 2013;10(5):750-759.

4. Morrison R, Reilly JJ, Penpraze V, et al. Children, parents and pets exercising together (CPET): exploratory randomised controlled trial. BMC Public Health. 2013;13:1096.

5. Westgarth C, Christley RM, Christian HE. How might we increase physical activity through dog walking?: a comprehensive review of dog walking correlates. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2014;11(1):83.

6. Feng Z, Dibben C, Witham MD, et al. Dog ownership and physical activity in later life: a cross-sectional observational study. Prev Med. 2014;66:101-106.