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Can Dogs Help With Maintaining Motivation?

Volpe, Stella Lucia Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., FACSM

ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: May-June 2011 - Volume 15 - Issue 3 - p 36-37
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e3182160f03

Can Dogs Help with Maintaining Motivation?.

Stella Lucia Volpe, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N, FACSM, is professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA. Her degrees are in both nutrition and exercise physiology; she also is ACSM Exercise Specialist® certified and a registered dietitian. Dr. Volpe's research focuses on obesity and diabetes prevention using traditional interventions, mineral supplementation, and more recently, by altering the environment to result in greater physical activity and healthy eating. Dr. Volpe is an associate editor of ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal®.

No doubt you have clients who resolved to lose weight, exercise, and/or eat well at the beginning of the new year. The dramatic increase in people attending gyms in January every year is consistent with these resolutions. Of course, the numbers begin to dwindle in about March or April. How can we help clients to maintain a regular exercise routine (whether at the gym or not)? This certainly is a difficult question to answer because long-term motivation comes from within. However, as exercise physiologists and/or personal trainers, researchers, physicians, nurses, and so on, how can we best help our clients/participants/patients stay on track with their exercise routines? Although this is a Nutritionist's View article, the focus of this article will be on exercise.

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Although intuitive to most people, especially to those who are reading this article, there is strong evidence that regular exercise will prevent weight gain over time. Hankinson et al. (2) evaluated the relationship between regular physical activity and changes in body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference during a 20-year period. After adjusting for race, baseline BMI, age, education, cigarette smoking status, alcohol use, and energy intake, they reported that men who regularly exercised gained 2.6 fewer kilograms per year, whereas women who maintained a high physical activity level gained 6.1 fewer kilograms per year. This same pattern held with waist circumference: men gained 3.1 fewer centimeters per year, whereas women gained 3.8 fewer centimeters per year. This study stressed the importance of maintaining regular physical activity to prevent weight gain over time. However, discussing this evidence with your clients will not necessarily motivate them to continue to exercise.

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There are a number of ways that individuals are motivated to exercise. First, if a person is meeting you for a one-on-one training session, that alone is motivation for him or her to exercise. In addition, if people have friends to meet to exercise, that also increases the likelihood that they will continue to exercise. The "buddy system" has been shown to be an effective tool for adherence to an exercise program. In addition to this, when people attend classes (e.g., Pilates classes, spinning classes, etc.), they more likely are to be consistent attendees, especially if the instructor knows everyone by name, and if the person has made friends with individuals in the class.

Aside from "typical" gym memberships, it also is important to encourage your clients to be physically active outside the gym. People often think that after they have completed their structured exercise routine, that "it is enough" for the day. However, encouraging stair use, parking farther away at stores, and sitting on a balance ball at the desk will all help to improve fitness and burn calories.

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It has been shown that having a dog also will increase physical activity. More research is showing that individuals who have dogs are more physically active than those who do not have dogs. This has been shown for families (parents and children who walk dogs together), as well as older adults, and even in individuals who walked dogs who were not their own.

Christian et al. (1) reported that a greater proportion of those who regularly walked their dogs were more likely to meet the recommendations of 150 minutes of physical activity per week. This especially was true if dog owners felt a greater social support and motivation from their dogs to walk, and if they had greater access to dog-supportive parks nearby.

A study conducted in more than 2,500 community-dwelling older adults, 71 to 82 years of age, found that those individuals who did walk their dogs were more likely to achieve 150 minutes of walking per week 6. Although only 36% of the dog owners walked their dogs at least three times per week, the authors suggested that dog walking is an avenue to pursue for increased physical activity among older adults.





Salmon et al. (5) evaluated the associations of dog ownership, dog walking, and physical activity among children and their parents. Fifty-three percent of families owned a dog; however, 41% of children who had a dog did not walk their dog at all, and 32% of families stated that they did not walk their dog as a family. Despite these low statistics, having a dog was associated with 29 minutes per day more of physical activity among younger girls, with mothers of younger boys and older girls obtaining 70 and 59 minutes per week more physical activity, respectively.

Photo courtesy of Stella Lucia Volpe, Ph

Photo courtesy of Stella Lucia Volpe, Ph

Johnson and Meadows (4) examined whether a "loaner" dog would facilitate adherence to physical activity in 26 participants who lived in public housing. They walked certified therapy dogs with a handler for 20 minutes per day, 5 days per week. Those who completed the program lost about 14 lbs during 50 weeks. The main reason that participants adhered to the program was because the dogs "need us to walk them."

Hoerster and colleagues (3) assessed if dog walking was associated with meeting the American College of Sports Medicine/American Heart Association physical activity guidelines. They found that dog walking independently was related to meeting the physical activity guidelines, particularly with respect to the following: dog encouragement of dog walking, dog walking obligation, and dog walking self-efficacy.

The authors stated that dog walking is "a viable method for promoting physical activity."

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Dog walking can be a great way for people to increase physical activity, especially if the human-dog bond is a strong one. Although not all individuals can have dogs or want dogs, those who do have dogs or who are willing to walk dogs (as with the "loaner dog" study) tend to be more physically active than individuals without dogs. Walking with one's dog on a daily basis helps the dogs and the owners with their overall health.

The research in dog walking and physical activity among humans is increasing, and it may be an excellent method of helping people to be motivated to walk more. After all, dogs love being physically active and are healthier and better behaved with greater physical activity. We humans also need to be more physically active and reap these health benefits as well.

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In Memory - This article is written in memory of two of my best walking partners - Asko and Cenna (at left).

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1. Christian CH, Giles-Corti B, Knuiman M. "I'm just a'-walking the dog" correlates of regular dog walking. Fam Commun Health. 2010;33(1):44-52.
2. Hankinson AL, Daviglus ML, Bouchard C, et al. Maintaining a high physical activity level over 20 years and weight gain. JAMA. 2010;304(23):2603-10.
3. Hoerster KD, Mayer JA, Sallis JF, et al. Dog walking: Its association with physical activity guideline adherence and its correlates. Prev Med. 2011;52(1):33-38. Epub 2010 Nov 1.
4. Johnson RA, Meadows RL. Dog-walking: Motivation for adherence to a walking program. Clin Nurs Res. 2010;19(4):387-402. Epub 2010 Jul 22.
5. Salmon J, Timperio A, Chu B, Veitch J. Dog ownership, dog walking, and children's and parents' physical activity. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2010;81(3):264-71.
6. Thorpe RJ Jr, Simonsick EM, Brach JS, et al. Health, aging and body composition study. Dog ownership, walking behavior, and maintained mobility in late life. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2006;54(9):1419-24.
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Recommended Resources

ID-WAG - International Dog Walking Activity Group (Note that there is no Web site for this group at present; however, if interested in joining this group, which has calls on a monthly basis, feel free to email Dr. Stella Volpe.)
    Kids and K-9s for Healthy Choices:
      Walk a Hound - Lose a Pound:
        © 2011 American College of Sports Medicine.