“If your dog is overweight, then you’re not getting enough exercise.” It was a wise—if unknown— person who coined the phrase, and the meaning is made all the more relevant by Walk a Hound Lose a Pound, a book by Rebecca Johnson and Phil Zeltzman. We caught up with Johnson, a professor of gerontological nursing and director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at University of Missouri.
LN: How did you come about studying the relationship between dog-walking and human health?
RJ: The problem of obesity is prevalent across all age groups in our society—and for dogs, as well. I worked with older adults in a graduated walking program where they’d walk the shelter dogs that we provided. The participants made improvements in their thoughts about walking and confidence in their steps, and also increased walking speed. So it made a positive difference in their health and also made the dogs more adoptable by giving them good leash skills. During one study, we had a 72-percent adherence, which is virtually unheard of in human activity research. They lost 14.5 pounds on average. When we asked them why they kept with it, many said, Because the dogs need us.
Walking is a pleasurable way to get exercise. When you’re walking a dog, you get added benefit because the dog provides us with unconditional acceptance and enthusiasm. You see the dog enjoying itself, looking at birds and squirrels. You’re also engaging with your dog in a way that’s good for both of you. If treadmills provided unconditional love and support, there wouldn’t be so many out there with clothes hanging on them!
LN: Why is dog-walking such an effective wellness strategy?
RJ: Adherence is an enormous factor, and if you have that little motivator staring at you and wanting to go for the walk, it’s hard to say no. Having that built-in motivator to have a consistent approach is very important. If you’re trying to squeeze something into your already crowded lifestyle like going to the gym, so many factors come into play: convenience, how far you have to drive, parking, and how crowded is it when you’re available to work out. I have nothing against gyms, but if you have an animal waiting for you when you go home and it gives this total-body, joyful response to your arrival, you want to take it for the walk. You don’t need a lot of special equipment, just good shoes, a lead and a sensible approach.
LN: And a dog will never say no to a walk!
RJ: When we started out with seniors walking shelter dogs, they would come in and say: Where’s my doggie; I can’t wait to see what dog I’m walking today. We also had a human companion group who had the same plan of walking five days per week for 12 weeks. The human walkers actually discouraged each other from walking, more often than not, with excuses like, It’s too hot, or I’m busy today, let’s not go. Dogs never offer any resistance. It was a positive motivation and reinforcement for doing exercise. Dogs are unconditionally loving and accepting, and most of us need more of that in our lives.
LN: What are the health benefits?
RJ: Physical activity is known to be associated with lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides and the capacity for weight loss. An endorphin release also happens when we’re exercising, which causes you to feel a positive mood. We also know for older people, if we keep them exercising, the morale stays better, and then they’re more likely to engage in society. When they pull in and withdraw, then a series of things start happening: They could have a fall and quickly lose ability to walk and have good balance. We also need something to help us not be so absorbed with our own health issues, and when we have something outwardly to focus on rather than every little ache and pain, we tend to stay healthier without even knowing it.
LN: What else should people keep in mind?
RJ: It’s important to match your energy level to the dog’s level, whether you’re walking your dog, a neighbor’s dog or a shelter dog. Look at the needs of the dog and your capabilities. Most seniors have smaller-breed dogs, which is probably easier—I can envision a time in my life when I wouldn’t want to lift an 85-pound dog!
Walk a Hound Lose a Pound is available on Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble retailers.