Shed pounds together
Pudgy pooches and owners can
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR The New York Times
Couples who exercise together, experts have always said, are more likely to stick to a fitness plan than those who go it alone. But a new study, offering a twist on the old-fashioned buddy system, has found that people looking for a sidekick need look no further than their pets.
In perhaps the first experiment of its kind, researchers showed that overweight owners and their pudgy pooches could lose weight and successfully stay trim by joining a diet and exercise program together.
The owners shed as many pounds as a control group of people without pets, while the dogs fared even better, dropping a greater percentage of body weight.
The findings of the study, financed by Hill's Pet Nutrition, a pet food company, were presented last fall at a national obesity conference in Las Vegas.
"We're always looking for creative ways to help people manage their weight so they find it fun and rewarding," said Dr. Robert Kushner, the medical director of the Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the lead author of the study.
"We are facing a dual obesity epidemic in this country among people and their pets, and the idea came about to tackle both problems together."
Multiple studies have shown that support from others can help people kick destructive habits and change behaviors. But scientists have never before examined whether dogs can provide the motivation for losing weight, and vice versa, Kushner said.
In the new study, 82 people, 36 of them dog owners, attended counseling sessions on diet and fitness while eating no more than 1,400 calories a day. The subjects were mostly women, about 45 years old, and moderately obese. They were encouraged to walk daily.
The dogs, all overweight, varied from pint-sized poodles and cocker spaniels to Huskies and Shetland sheepdogs. Many of the animals were couch potatoes, let out only when necessary. They were overfed and often given table scraps.
Dr. Craig Prior, a veterinarian at Murphy Road Animal Hospital in Nashville, said he was not surprised that the animals packed on pounds.
"Overweight people tend to have overweight pets," said Prior, who was not directly involved with the study. "We literally see a trickle-down effect with the animals. People will often sneak their dogs food from the table, give them snacks and feel sorry for them when the animal is supposed to be on a diet."
As part of the yearlong study, the owners were told to take their pets on their daily walks. They were given a list of dog-friendly parks and encouraged to spend a total of 20 or 30 minutes a day playing fetch or another activity. The animals were put on a calorie-reduced diet designed to help them reach their target "doggie BMI," or body mass index.
On average, the humans shed about 11 pounds, or 5 percent of their body weight. The animals, on the other hand, did far better, losing an average of 15 percent of their weight. The most a person lost was 51 pounds; the most for a dog, 35 pounds.
Kathleen O'Dekirk, 51, a lawyer in Chicago who signed up for the study with her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, named Winston, said she began to eat more healthfully and spend more time with her dog. She gave up bacon and eggs for veggie burgers and fruit, and now walks briskly with Winston for an hour and a half each day instead of 45 minutes a day. She said she shed a little over 10 pounds from her 5-foot-3, 150-pound frame, while Winston, who was overweight at 31 pounds, lost 7 pounds.
"We weren't on a diet per se, it was just that we were getting better nutrition," said O'Dekirk, who dropped two pants sizes during the study.
"We also walk a lot faster and a lot longer than we used to when we started the program. We used to stroll, now we really walk."