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Judith J. Wurtman, PhD Headshot

Do Dog Parks Fatten Dog Owners?

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A dog park opened up a few blocks from where I live. Now, instead of walking my dog Simon (a long-haired dachshund) around several neighborhood blocks I, along with my pet, invariably head toward the doggy play area. Once there, he runs around to sniff other dogs while I stand and chat with the dog owners who are usually known only by the name of their pet (as in, "Do you know Scuffy's mom?"). After several mornings of this, I realized that whereas in the past, both Simon and I got exercise in the morning, now he is the only one moving while I just stand and talk.

One of the basic recommendations for motivating people to exercise has been to tell them to get a dog and take the animal for long walks, and even runs. But now this advice seems to be subverted by not only the proliferation of dog parks but also the appearance of doggy gyms in shopping malls and, hard to believe but true, a kind of doggy treadmill that you can buy for home use. One remote but possible outcome of having the dog exercise while we stand or drive the dog to its gym is that the dog will be lean and fit while we will reap the unfortunate effects of gaining weight due to ever-decreasing physical activity.

Whether we walk our dogs or stand and let the dogs play in a dog park should not have any impact on our weight, should it? Of course not, if we follow a lifestyle that has many opportunities for physical activity besides going to the gym for a few hours each week. Alas, for many, long work hours, family and community commitments have eroded almost all opportunities to move.

A few days ago, I sat next to a woman at a dinner who complained that she had gained five pounds in one month because her new job compelled her to drive rather than walk to work. "I changed absolutely nothing else in my life. I ate the same way and kept the same workout schedule and errands on the weekends. But sitting in the car a couple of hours each day, rather than walking 45 minutes to work and then back home, decreased my energy use enough to cause this weight gain. It's dreadful. At this point I have no idea how I can squeeze some exercise time into my very limited hours at home."

When I asked why she couldn't exercise at lunch, she laughed. "Lunch? We eat at our desks or, if we are in a meeting, the food is brought in. The only way I could escape the office at lunch would be if there were a fire and we had to go outside. No one takes a lunch break. You would be regarded as lazy if you did."

National obesity experts have focused on the absence of gym time in many schools and play time when the kids come home as one cause of increased pediatric obesity. But very little attention is directed to the lack of exercise time for adults, even though we are becoming fat at an alarming rate. These same experts tell the country that physical activity is mandatory for our physical and mental health. What they don't tell us is how to fit exercise into our lives.

When can people with these schedules and obligations exercise? Consider the:

• Person working two jobs and looking for a third; or

• The college student with a long commute to school and both an afternoon and a weekend job; or

• The working parent taking children to daycare early in the morning, picking them up after work and going home and starting the second job as mom or dad; or

• The adult caring for a live-in parent who needs constant care; or

• A corporate worker whose day starts at 7 a.m., lasts until 10 p.m., and often includes weekends; or

• The regional manager who must travel constantly and spends "free time" at home catching up with work in the office, etc.

The list could go on and on, and indeed might be much longer than a list of people who do have the time to exercise regularly in addition to walking their dog. And it doesn't even include obstacles to exercise for those who do have the time, which include:

• No sidewalks or shoulders on the road on which to walk;

• Late sunrises and early sunsets;

• Snow, ice or excessive heat;

• Cost of health clubs or home exercise equipment;

• Danger (assaults on women has been a problem along a popular running path where I live and many areas may be unsafe for someone running or walking alone);

• Air pollution; and/or

• Medical problems that limit mobility.

If we are to achieve a fit country, we have to go beyond talk and public service announcements. Exercise has to be made as accessible as getting food when one is hungry. At present, having the time to exercise is a privilege granted to only a relative few in our society.