People and Pets Losing Weight Together
Article by: Matt Papa
People and Pets Losing Weight Together
An Effective Way To Fight The Dual Obesity Epidemic
There is little question that an obesity epidemic exists in the United States. Over 60% of adult Americans are classified as overweight or obese, and this percentage has been increasing over the years. But humans are not the only ones suffering from an obesity epidemic – an estimated 25% of America's pet population is also overweight or obese. That amounts to 30 million dogs and cats who are suffering from a weight problem. As the solution for both humans and animals is a healthy diet and increased physical activity, why not approach this dual obesity epidemic by encouraging owners and pets to lose weight together?
The PPET Study: People and Pets Exercising Together
Many people, especially those who have contemplated starting a diet and exercise program, know that enlisting a friend to also take part in the weight management program is a common tip. Studies have shown that people are better able to lose weight and keep that weight off when they do it with the support of a friend. And, if you are a pet owner, you know that pets can truly make the best and most loyal friends. A year-long study conducted by Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Hill's Pet Nutrition – the first study of people and pet weight loss – confirms that a pet can be an effective weight loss buddy .
The People and Pets Exercising Together (PPET) study was designed to compare three groups of overweight participants: a group of 36 people and their dogs, a group of 53 dogs, and a group of 56 people. During the weight loss portion of the study, all dogs were fed Hill's Prescription Diet® Canine r/d®, a low-fat dog food specially formulated to be nutritionally balanced and help dogs lose weight. The dogs' owners were given a suggested exercise plan for their pet, as well as a regular weigh-in schedule. Once the dog's weight loss goal was met, it was switched to Hill's Prescription Diet® Canine w/d® for the duration of the study. Human participants were also provided with meal plans, as well as instruction on behavioral strategies to control calorie intake. Each person also received a pedometer, and were taught strategies to increase their amount of physical activity.
Both people and dogs lost weight and maintained their weight loss during the year-long study. The human participants averaged an 11-pound weight loss, while the dogs averaged a loss of 12 pounds. Interestingly, the group that consisted of both dogs and owners retained the most participants throughout the study: 80% of the dogs who participated with their owners completed the study, while only 68% of those in the dog-only group completed the entire 12 month study. In addition, a full two-thirds of the increase in exercise in the dog/owner group was achieved through participation in dog-related physical activities.
The results of the PPET study show that when pet owners participate in a weight loss program with their pet, both pet and owner are more successful at sticking with the program. Moreover, the dog owners in the study reported an improved quality of life, and the quality of life of pet and owner were strongly linked. Dog owners who participated in the study found that their love for their pet was excellent motivation to make a real lifestyle change, allowing them to lose weight and keep it off while strengthening their bond with their dog. As one owner reported, “Caring for and loving my dog is what motivated me to be a part of this program."
Scientific Evidence That Supports The Effectiveness of A People And Pets Weight Loss Program
The PPET study was the first of its kind, but the positive effects of dogs on human health and well-being have long been shown through scientific studies. Pet owners have been found to have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (lower systolic blood pressure, lower blood cholesterol and plasma triglyceride levels), higher survival rates after a heart attack (myocardial infarction), lower levels of mental stress, lower feelings of loneliness and depression and higher self-esteem . The PPET study suggests that pet owners also have a potential advantage in having an eager and willing diet and exercise buddy in the form of their dog.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a recent study has shown that there is a significant relationship between the degree of overweight dogs and the Body Mass Index of their owners: overweight dogs tend to have overweight owners . The study suggests this is because owners apply their personal attitudes and behaviors to their pets. If the owner is making unhealthy lifestyle choices, it is likely he or she is making similarly unhealthy choices on behalf of their dog. The study concludes that “Many exercise programs to prevent overweight seem to fail because of the lack of urgency to comply with the exercise regimen, and owning a dog may be one way to increase compliance.”
This conclusion seems to be supported by the findings of several other studies, which indicate that people who own dogs tend to live a more active lifestyle. One such study involved 8,504 participants from King County, WA, and Baltimore, MD. Study participants who took part in dog walking were more likely to meet national recommendations for MVPA (Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity) than non-dog owners. There were also significantly fewer obese participants in the dog walking group, as compared to the non-dog owners .
Another study took place in the Capital Region District of Greater Victoria, in British Columbia. The analysis of the study's data found that residents who owned dogs walked an average of 300 minutes per week, as compared to non-dog owning residents who walked an average of only 168 minutes per week. The dog owners spent more time participating in mild and moderate physical activities, and it appears that the obligation involved in caring for a dog acted as the mediator between dog ownership and physical activity .
Finally, a study of 41,154 people in California, conducted by the The National Cancer Institute (Bethesda, MD), found that walking for leisure was more prevalent among dog owners than non-pet owners. Dog owners walked 18.9 minutes more per week than people who were not pet owners, leading to the conclusion that there is an association between dog ownership and higher levels of physical activity .
Social Support And Companionship
In addition to being one of the responsibilities of dog ownership, dog walking has also been shown to be an important source of social support. Results of one study on companions as social support showed that women who reported no company or pet to walk with were 31% less likely to walk for exercise or recreation. Another study confirmed that, in addition to providing companionship, having a dog along provides owners with a feeling of increased safety, particularly when walking at night or in an unsafe neighborhood .
Of course, any dog owner already knows that their pet can be an excellent and important source of social support for a variety of different situations. The biophilia hypothesis suggests this may be a result of an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. (The term “biophilia” literally means "love of life or living systems.") The relationship between human and dog, rich in social support and love, satisfies this innate human need to connect with other living things.
It stands to reason that participating in an owner and pet exercise program, which provides both quality time and a common challenge, will strengthen this human-dog bond and provide motivation to keep going. This was found to be true in the PPET study. Participants in the dog/owner group were more confident and motivated, with many reporting that their dog was a major motivational factor. The owners were more likely to lose weight and keep it off, and they also took satisfaction from helping their pet do the same.
Benefits For All Ages
So, who can benefit from a people and pet weight loss program? Everyone, from the very young to the elderly. A study conducted by a team from Deakin University in Victoria, CA, found that younger children who owned a dog had lowered odds of being overweight or obese . Another study, conducted by John Hopkins Medical Institutions, found that dog walkers ages 71-82 were approximately twice as likely to maintain recommended walking levels than non-dog owners in the same age group .
Studies have shown that dogs provide the companionship, social support, and motivation needed to stick with a weight loss program, and may even help people make the lifestyle changes necessary to maintain weight loss over the long term. With all the scientific support for the effectiveness of a people and pets weight loss program, it seems clear that such an approach could be a powerful way to address the dual obesity epidemic among people and pets. As Dr. Kushner, the leader of the PPET study, says, “This just might be the ultimate buddy system for winning the battle of the bulge!"
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Matt Papa, dog lover and owner of a beautiful German Shepherd named Hera, is a medical researcher and postdoctoral fellow at Washington University School of Medicine. Matt's research interests include the human-animal relationship and its role in fighting the dual obesity epidemic faced by people and their pets. Research shows that similar factors play a role in obesity in both humans and dogs, and he is fascinated by new studies that examine the ways human and animals can lose weight together. Matt is the owner of Weight Loss Triumph, a website that offers reviews on weight loss diets and coupons for Medifast