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Dogs Take Owners For A Walk To Better Fitness and Health

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Instead of finding a workout buddy, Betsy Del Giacco Jay partnered up with her overweight dog Hawkeye for long walks in the woods near her Cooperstown, N.Y., home. She lost weight, and so did Hawkeye.

Jay lost about 7 pounds and Hawkeye dropped about 4, which put the Lab mix at an ideal body weight.

The 7 pounds was a modest weight loss for Jay, but consider this: The 47-year-old Presbyterian minister would have probably gained several pounds during the same period if she hadn't been taking regular walks with Hawkeye. The average American packs on at least that much and sometimes more in a year -- a fact that has helped fuel the nation's obesity epidemic, says James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

Jay and her dog participated in a six-month study by researchers at the Bassett Healthcare Center in Cooperstown. Preliminary findings from this study, and another one, suggest people and pets can team up to lose weight.

Even modest weight loss can help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases that kill millions of people and pets every year in the USA.

The Cooperstown study included 11 dog owners who were overweight and their hefty dogs. The owners got a weight check at the start and were told to follow a low-fat diet with fruits and veggies.

The dogs also got on the scales. Owners were told to carefully measure each dog's daily ration of food -- a low-calorie dog chow made by Iams of Lewisburg, Ohio, which funded the study. The researchers also told owners not to feed their dogs table scraps.

The overweight owners, who had been mostly inactive at the study's start, reported an average of 7 miles of dog walks per week, says Allan Greene, director of the Bassett Research Institute.

After six months, the researchers found that six out of the 11 owners had lost weight -- about 3 pounds. Dogs did better: The average pooch in the study lost 5 pounds. Of course, the dogs in the study couldn't cheat the way humans do by eating lots of high-fat or sugary snacks, Greene says.

Robert Kushner at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and his colleagues did the second study. They recruited 56 people without dogs and 36 dog owners. All were 30 to 40 pounds overweight. The humans got standard dietary recommendations, and the overweight dogs got controlled portions of low-fat dog food provided by Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc., which funded the study.

The people all lost the same amount of weight on average, about 11 pounds. But dog owners got more exercise than the control group, a fact that probably means dog owners were more physically fit at the end of the study, Kushner says.

Dogs that get in the habit of a regular walk can help motivate owners to stick with an exercise program, says Jennifer Jellison, a Columbus, Ohio, vet who worked on the study with Kushner.

Jay says that she and Hawkeye started out with short walks but soon started going for 3- and 4-mile jaunts, even in the winter. And on days Jay would just as soon stay home, Hawkeye wouldn't take no for an answer.

''He'd try to herd me toward the door,'' she says.Even modest weight loss

can help reduce the

risk of heart disease, diabetes and other

diseases that kill millions

of people and pets

every year in the USA.

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