A fit man’s best friend

Dogs can make good workout partners for individuals who want to stay in shape
Sunday, February 20, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:48 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct errors.]

Will Johansen’s new exercise partner, Rosie, has helped him lose 15 pounds in six weeks.

Rosie is a therapy dog that is part of the Pet Assisted Love and Support program based at the MU School of Veterinary Medicine. Her current assignment is the Walking for Healthy Hearts program at Oak Towers, a Columbia retirement community.

The program focuses on the benefits of a gradated exercise plan for individuals with health problems or disabilities. The focus on healthy hearts encouraged Johansen, 53, to exercise more. Since starting the program, he has gone to the Humane Society and has volunteered to walk the dogs there, too.

“The dogs take your mind off of you doing exercise. It’s been real positive for me,” Johansen said.

The Pet Assisted Love and Support program is conducted by Richard Meadows, director of community practice at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

The program is funded by the Missouri Foundation for Health in St. Louis. The first participants in the program included 16 individuals from Paquin Tower, another Columbia retirement home.

“One of the things we aimed to affect was weight, and so far we have had on average a 14.4 pound weight loss among the first group of participants,” Johnson said.

The participants walk with a trained visitor dog and a handler. The handlers are necessary for the safety of the dogs and the participants. They start walking for 10 minutes, three times a week and eventually walk for as long as 20 minutes, five days a week.

The goal of the program is to use the bonds that emerge between participants and their assigned pets to encourage the participants to keep up with their healthier lifestyles.

“The walkers say things like, ‘The dogs need us to walk them’; ‘The dogs make us feel like better persons’; ‘The dog is my friend and is waiting for me to walk,’” said Rebecca Johnson, an MU professor of gerontological nursing who oversees the Walking for Healthy Hearts program.

Individuals who plan to start exercise programs with their dogs should keep a few pointers in mind.

“If this is a New Year’s resolution — ‘I want to lose that weight this year, and I want to take my dog with me’ — but your dog is a couch potato, then you shouldn’t expect the dog to all of a sudden become an athlete,” Meadows said. “A lot of our pets are just like us, they get too much to eat and too little exercise, and they are not motivated or stimulated to get up and get that exercise, so they need to get into it gradually.”

Exercising with your dog has benefits for you and your pooch, Meadows said.

“Dogs need physical activity as much as we do,” he said. “They can get by without it perhaps longer than we can, because their lifespan is so compressed compared with ours. But they certainly get the physical benefits out of it.”

In a Pedigree Dog Food survey of 1,500 U.S. dog owners, 68 percent said their dogs motivate them to live healthier and more active lifestyles. Also, 49 percent said they incorporate their dogs into daily exercise regimens.

Good friends Carole Riesenberg and Bill Fisch, both of Columbia, enjoy exercising with their dogs. They could be found recently at the Hinkson Creek Trail walking Webster, a mixed breed, and Emma, a miniature silver schnauzer.

“They love the snow, and they are more energetic in the snow than they are in the summer when it’s very hot and very humid,” she said.

Riesenberg, 60, said she goes to the Grindstone Nature Trail two or three times a week, weather permitting.

“The only time I don’t come out here is when it’s really muddy,” she said.

Fisch said they spend 30 minutes to an hour walking, depending on the weather.

“I (walk) to keep my dog in good health,” Riesenberg said. “He’s 9 years old, and I am really concerned about his diet and his exercise. His health, as well as my health, is a real motivator.”

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