updated 10/21/2005 1:55:43 PM ET 2005-10-21T17:55:43

Dogs may be more than man’s best friend; they may also be a tool for losing weight, according to a new study that shows making a commitment to walk a dog -- your own or someone else’s -- leads to increased exercise and weight loss.

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The goal of the study, according to Rebecca Johnson, was to encourage sedentary overweight people to exercise and specifically to walk.

“We know that walking is good for people but we don’t know how to get people to continue to do it. We wanted to see whether bonding with a dog might be a motivator to continue walking,” said Johnson, who is an associate professor of nursing and director of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The dog-walkers in the study started by walking 10 minutes per day three times per week and eventually walked up to 20 minutes per day 5 days per week. One group walked for 50 weeks while another walked for only 26 weeks.

For the study, the participants walked with loaner dogs --trained and certified “visitor” animals that were provided by the Pet Assisted Love and Support (PALS) Program.

According to Johnson, the 50-week walkers lost an average of 14 pounds during the one-year program. “That’s a better result than most of the nationally known weight-loss plans,” she told Reuters Health.

Improved ability to walk
The walkers “bonded with the animals, improved their flexibility, balance and ability to walk, lost weight and felt better about themselves so it was a very positive thing all around,” Johnson added.

It’s important to realize, she said, that these were a sedentary, economically disadvantaged group of people with multiple chronic illnesses. Some had trouble walking even 10 minutes per day three days per week at the beginning of the study but they gradually improved their ability to walk.

“We had one lady,” Johnson said, “who relied on an electric scooter when she was outside of her apartment and by the end of the 50 week program she was able to walk to the neighborhood grocery store and back.”

The 26-week walkers did not lose as much weight as the 50-week walkers “so we know that it takes a year see the weight come off,” Johnson said. Having a dog or being responsible for walking someone’s dog may be just the motivating factor to keep people walking or encourage more people to walk, she said.

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