Paring pounds with help from pudgy pooches

Study examines benefits of exercise with pet

If you need to lose weight, try adopting a dog.
Researchers at Bassett Healthcare’s Research Institute in Cooperstown are studying whether paunchy pet owners and their pudgy pooches can lose weight by walking together.

“In the same way that people will have a gym buddy … maybe people who are overweight could have a partnership with their dog to get into an exercise program,” said Allan Green, a biochemist and director of the institute.

Study examines benefits of exercise with pet
Study examines benefits of exercise with pet

The idea worked for study participant Dr. Elizabeth Freck, a medical resident at the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, and Roxy, her yellow Labrador retriever.

The two walked about six days most weeks during their six months in the study, starting out at 20 minutes a day and ending at 50 minutes, Freck said.

She lost almost 20 pounds. Roxy, 8, lost five.
Walking also calms the ebullient dog and, over time, has made it easier for her to go up and down stairs, Freck said.

Freck also has lost the skepticism with which she entered the study.

“You really can lose weight just by walking your dog,” she said.

Study examines benefits of exercise with pet
Study examines benefits of exercise with pet

And Freck admitted she probably wouldn’t have walked so faithfully on her own. Roxy got used to walking so she wanted to go out every day, no matter what the weather, Freck said.

And Roxy, a 90-pound tour de force with a guard dog’s booming bark and a puppy’s kinetic friendliness, can be hard to ignore.

“I don’t think I would have made it out there on the cold days if she hadn’t gotten so excited,” Freck said.

But the Cooperstown resident did sometimes find walking difficult from a logistical point of view, she said. She had to search out shoveled sidewalks, creep over or around icy patches and scope out the local dogs, she said. A loose dog did bite Roxy once.

Project Friend, as the study is called, was the brainchild of Green, a researcher who spends a lot of time addressing obesity through cells in test tubes, and Greg Sunvold, a colleague at pet-food maker Iams with an interest in canine obesity.

As they were talking about the health benefits of pet ownership, they thought of another way man and his best friend could help each other out, Green said.

“(Obesity) really is an epidemic. The changes over the last 20 years have just been so incredible. And the future looks pretty bleak as far as our children are concerned. So many of them are overweight these days,” said Green, who hopes to expand his research to children someday.

Study examines benefits of exercise with pet
Study examines benefits of exercise with pet

Green also has some experience in dog walking. About the time Project Friend was born, Green started walking his own dog, also a yellow Lab, twice a day and found that his dog, once in the habit, insisted on those walks, he said.

A small Project Friend pilot study showed promising results so the colleagues launched a larger study with more than 100 overweight people divided into three groups. The first group didn’t own dogs and were simply told to go on a low-calorie diet and exercise more.

The other two groups owned overweight dogs and were asked to walk them every day. One of the groups also put its dogs on a special, low-calorie food developed by Iams.

The study is over, but the data has not yet been analyzed, Green said. If the results prove as interesting as he expects them to be, Green hopes to present them at a meeting in the fall and then get them published, he said.

As for Freck, now that the study is over, she and Roxy have cut down to about three walks a week. Neither of them has lost more weight on this scaled-back regimen, but neither has gained any back either, Freck said.

Study examines benefits of exercise with pet
Study examines benefits of exercise with pet

After years of sitting, studying and eating during medical school, the study provided just the right push to get her exercising again, Freck said.

“But also, it makes you realize that you could do it on your own,” she said. “This is something that anyone with a dog and a pair of sneakers could do.”