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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Why Exercise is Not the Cure for Your Dog's Excess Weight

October 25, 2013 / (13) comments

I just finished listening to a podcast produced by the Public Radio show Science Friday called “Fallacies of Fat.” In it, Dr. Robert Lustig talks about diet, exercise, weight loss, and health and how they are not all related in the ways that you might think.

Dr. Lustig is a medical doctor, not a veterinarian, but I think some of his points could have important implications when it comes to the well being of dogs and cats. I’m going to talk about obesity and dogs here. For my take on diabetes and cats, head on over to today’s feline version of Nutrition Nuggets.

According to the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 36.7 million dogs (52.5% of the 70 million U.S. pet dogs) are overweight or obese. I can think of no other health condition that has such a profound negative effect on the health of so many dogs. Dr. Lustig takes issue with the common recommendation to exercise in order to lose weight, citing the following facts:

  • The largest percentage of calories that a person burns during the course of a day occurs while he or she is sleeping and watching TV. (I suspect that since dogs’ lifestyles tend to mirror their owners’, the same is true for the canine companion curled up on the couch next to us.)
  • There is not one study demonstrating that exercise alone will result in significant weight loss.

It basically comes down to math. To lose a pound of fat, we need to burn about 3,500 calories more than we absorb. According to the Mayo Clinic, a 160 pound person would have to walk briskly for more than 11 hours over their normal activity level to burn 3,500 calories, while cutting just 500 calories from their daily intake has the same effect in just one week. 500 calories equates to a single large McDonald’s fries, or a cup or two of most ice creams. Neither option is easy, but cutting 500 calories a day is doable for many people; walking for an additional hour and a half every day (or the equivalent for more vigorous forms of exercise) is not. Now, the situation isn’t exactly the same for dogs, but the general idea that it takes a lot of exercise to equate to a relatively small reduction in calories holds.

This is not to say that exercise is not beneficial. As Dr. Lustig says, it is pretty much the best antidote for anything that ails you. I’d say the same is true for dogs. Exercise can help with musculoskeletal problems, behavioral issues, and so much more. Doctors and veterinarians simply need to stop touting it as being effective for weight loss and start emphasizing its health benefits instead.

When a dog needs to lose weight, veterinarians and owners should focus almost exclusively on cutting calories. Any weight loss that is attributable to an increase in exercise should be seen as the icing on top of the cake. (Sorry, bad analogy for this subject matter.)

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Matthew Williams-Ellis / Shutterstock

Comments  13

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  • Exercise is essential
    10/25/2013 05:21pm

    While I would not argue with scientific studies, I believe we do great harm when we minimize the importance of exercise. I come from a family where, if you exercise regularly, you stay slim and if you don't you get fat. Period. I am now 51 and people frequently comment not merely on the fact that I am still slim but on my energy level and my ability to do things. I can turn cartwheels, do the splits, and hike all day. My sheltie and I have a silly routine where we work out together and people are always really impressed by it. As for my sheltie, the little guy can hike 6 to seven miles in the mountains at a good pace without batting and eye, and has gone as far as nine on a very cool day. I walked him with a friend's border collie and by the end of the walk, the 2-year-old border collie was panting and my sheltie was not. Between obedience training and trick performances (and begging) I know my little guy sometimes gets too many treats but I am careful what treats I use, keep his meals small and makes sure he gets plenty of walks at a good pace.
    When people ask me how I stay healthy I tell them it is exercise. I do not think ANY diet alone will make a human healthy although I would imagine a really bad diet might have harmful consequences. But...I get tired of all the people I know looking for this edible magic bullet that will make them slim and healthy. Only exercise can prevent muscle and bone loss and make you stronger. You can cut out gluten, jucie every vegetable known to man, and take a million herbal supplements, but it will not do what exercise does.
    My philosophy is eat ONLY what you like. Hate Greek yogurt (I do) don't eat it. If you eat things you don't like because they are healthy, you will end up eating the things you do like anyway. Of course, make sure that you do like some fruits and veggies, whole grains, etc. and stay away from certain foods with no redeeming value, such as donuts or anything deep fried at the fair! Common sense should rule since what is "good for you" changes every day.
    So, walk those dogs, stretch, do some strength training and eat a cookie occasionally. You will be healthier.

  • Exercise DOES help
    10/25/2013 05:48pm

    We rescued a dog that needed to drop 20 pounds, and had the added criteria to address when feeding him in that he was allergic to chicken. If we hadn't been able to use exercise as a tool in his weight reduction our task would have been so much more difficult. However, portion control is definitely needed as well. We worked out the calories he was eating and split them into four servings per day. That helped shrink his stomach so that he also felt better, being more satisfied. And of course you need to ensure good nutrition as the body tends to crave when nutrients are missing.

  • 10/25/2013 05:54pm

    I should also mention that I like seeing corn gluten meal, (no other form of corn), in pet foods for a couple of reasons. First, there is the same amount of protein as in meat and fish meals, (http://www.ingredients101.com/cgm.htm). Second, there is a much greater amount of bioavailable leucine in corn gluten meal, (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1250243/pdf/cjvr69pg299.pdf), and that leucine will help with the exercise in that it ecourages muscle growth over fat cells, (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22818257). Leucine also reduces insulin resistance.

  • Icing and French Fries
    10/25/2013 09:02pm

    What you say makes perfect sense. Way back when I exercised and wore a size 2 or 4, I actually weighed more than I did when I wore a size 6. Guess it has something to do with muscle tone.

  • 11/05/2013 07:04pm

    Too many people are concerned with their weight. Weight has little to do with health. Muscle simply weighs more than fat. Wouldn't you rather weigh more while feeling AND LOOKING better? That is what exercise does for you.

    Muscle toned tightens around your skeletal structure providing for a slimmer you (and your dogs). It holds your joints in place as well as your organs. I say go for the slimmer you WITHOUT starving yourself. Eat plenty of fruits & veggies and exercise to build muscle.

    Muscle burns many more calories AT REST than fat. So while you are sitting and watching TV or sleeping you will burn 2-5 times more calories at a "heavier," but "slimmer" body.

  • 11/06/2013 12:48am

    PowerBambino, we HAVE to concern ourselves with weight in our pets as it is very difficult to bring them back to a healthy weight once they are overweight. You are brushing off a condition that is causing a major epidemic of diabetes in our companion animals, and I have seen a number of cats, specificallly that have developed cardiac conditions which would be unheard of with outdoor/feral intact animals. For some inexplicable reason dogs are developing lympomas at an increased rate, too, which can be life threatening. Even after getting our foster dog into shape, he still developed a second lypoma that was inoperable due to its location, and he eventually died of a cancerous tumor in that location. Please don't brush off the concerns that people on here have about keeping their pets healthy and happy just because humans don't have the same need for weight control.

  • 11/06/2013 05:45am

    It appears you are confusing weight with fat percentage... an animal or person can be "overweight" according to height or "length" or a chart, HOWEVER, one must take into consideration the person's/animal's fitness level. That is the point I am making. If you look at my weight on a chart I would appear overweight, however when you see me you would recognize a muscular, fit person with very LOW BODY FAT.

    Animals are the same and when given a chance, before the tipping point of disease and joint damage, will happily go outside and walk everyday. Eating for animals, like humans, can come from boredom and what you fail to mention is that if a human, or animal, is outside playing, walking, etc. then you and your pet are NOT sitting and eating. There is a double benefit.

    So please stop talking about weight and talk about fat percentage. There are so many complexities regarding health that no doctor can address them all on a 30 to 60 minute program, not even NPR. Anyone in the health field knows about the weight gain & loss cycle with a corresponding higher & higher percent of FAT and lower & lower percent of muscle mass with each successive cycle.
    When anyone/animal cuts back on Calories without exercise to maintain muscle mass the cycle perpetuates an eventual fat-to-body mass gain, or some kind of injury during an everyday movement==like getting out of a car causing a back strain.

  • 10/25/2013 09:36pm

    Here, highly simplified, is what I've learned about human weight control ... it's not about calories in/calories out. We did not even know what a calorie was until the last hundred years, yet we are now drowning in metabolic diseases. It's about ... is the metabolism functioning or is it broken? A broken metabolism can be fixed by eliminating inappropriate foods and eating appropriate foods. For humans that means foods highest in nutrient density and lowest in sugars. At the top of the nutrient density list are organ meats, muscle meats, seafoods, vegetables, low-fructose fruits. This is not opinion, this is all proven by science. It's not about whether you've made a personal choice to eat meat or not eat meat. These are facts. For extra credit, you can choose grass-fed meats and butter, which contain much higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a fat burning nutrient. CLA comes from the conversion of grass to flesh, which we then eat.

    For exercise, the biggest bang for our exercise buck is to work the largest muscles (upper legs, back, shoulders) to failure, one or two times a week, with eccentric exercises. The body's need to rebuild this muscle tissue, which has been damaged by the exercise, begins a cascade of metabolic cues which have the result of burning fat and building muscle. Again, this is not opinion, this is proven by science.

    So ... I've been wondering lately, would these principles also apply to dogs and cats? What are their most nutrient dense foods which would fix their broken metabolism? Probably also fresh organ meats, muscle meats, etc. What are their largest muscle groups which could be worked "to failure" (whatever that would mean for a dog) such that their bodies need to burn fat to fuel the process of muscle rebuilding? Probably their upper rear legs, backs and shoulders (and probably necks).

  • 10/25/2013 10:04pm

    For more information about all of this, please read the blog at The Smarter Science of Slim. All scientific references can be found with the blog posts:

  • 10/26/2013 02:06am

    I didn't see a single URL to reference material on that site. I did see that if I clicked on a link I would be able to purchase something.

    Organ meats, particularly kidneys and liver, clean toxins out of the blood and therefore concentrate those for the recipient. Personally, the training I have suggests that you need a balanced diet, rather than "nutrient dense" as your pet also needs good fermentable fiber to act as substrate for the gut bacteria that will break down the food you feed so that the villi in the colon can absorb and the body can utilize the nutrients.

    Another factor to be considered is that we are feeding sedentary house pets. Recent research is showing that our pets that have had gonadectomies have basically been plunged into a menopausal state at a very young age. The recommendation is portion control, with balanced foods our pets enjoy -- they only have one life to experience, too.

    The website you furnished showed a lot of supplements that I prefer not to promote as all supplements are manufactured in China where we in North America have no control of quality.

  • 10/26/2013 02:06am

    Here is but one example of a blog post on the site with references:

  • 11/06/2013 12:41am

    @3Dogs1Cat, if you followed other postings about obesity on here you would know that we have discussed pet food labels in the past, including the fact that one I specifically analyzed myself, (having training in nutritional assessment), had more calories in the fat content than the company was stating as being in the whole serving.

    Also, one factor that is not even approached in the human papers referred to in the web page you used as a reference is the fact that our pets are altered at a very early age, and therefore have a consistant issue with menopausal symptoms when battling weight gain.

    After looking at your answers I had to wonder if you realized we were talking about obesity in pets, rather than in humans?

  • 11/05/2013 06:55pm

    What must be considered when talking about Calorie use is that exercise increases the basic metabolic rate when "you are sleeping or watching TV." It is not necessarily the Calories you burn while you walk or exercise (or the dog also), but the increase in calorie burn when you are not exercising. Also, one's basic BALANCE and joint health is almost always increased with walking by keeping the muscles tone which keeps the knee joint aligned rather than allowing muscles to become loose and the related joint loose & unstable as well. Simply cutting Calories is NOT the answer because in doing so you SLOW DOWN YOUR BASIC METABOLIC RATE which occurs WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING OR WATCHING TV. So PLEASE review you statements here so people are not given the idea that exercise is NOT the answer. It is. Any implication that allows muscle to lose mass is BAD for the joints AND basic metabolic rate.