Furry Pals can be Partners in Fitness
(CNN) -- Under the California sun in a place known as Muscle Beach, where bronzed bodybuilders pump their cannon-size biceps, an energetic brunette works her arms -- and the weight purrs its approval.
Tara Brown of Venice Beach, California, noticed that her white, spotted cat, Lucky Cat, would scurry between her feet whenever she pumped barbells.
"Every time I do exercises, stretching, yoga, she was all over me," Brown said.
Rather than pushing her away, Brown got inspired. Her mother often exercised with her cats and had given her a 1997 how-to book called "Catflexing."
"I like to use light weights anyway for the bicep curls and twists, so I use my cat," Brown said. "Lucky Cat seems to want to hang out with me when I'm exercising, so I'll use her."
Neither she nor Lucky Cat has weight issues, but Brown discovered that exercising together can be a bonding activity.
In an age where man and animal have gotten obese, people are finding ways to battle the bulge alongside their cats and dogs.
The problem of pudgy pets has spawned fitness programs such as doggie gyms and water therapy classes. And if doga (yoga with dogs) weren't enough, exercise videos are being made to get plump pets and their owners in shape together. Celebrity trainer Gunnar Peterson, who has trained actresses Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz, has workout videos for man and beast.
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"I think that people take on a pet, and over time, they can't [put] as much time into it," Peterson said. "What used to be the diligent two to three walks a day becomes one walk a day, plus some extra treats. So you have lack of exercise and overfeeding. It's what happens with humans."
Sedentary humans have sedentary pets, he said.
Dr. Robert Kushner, obesity expert and professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, agreed.
"Dogs adopt the eating and activity pattern of their owners," said Kushner, who co-wrote a fitness guide for dogs and humans. "If an owner sits and watches TV with their feet up, they're obviously not walking their dog. If they're snacking all day long, they'll also feed the dogs those snacks."
Peterson, who keeps four dogs, said people overfeed their pets out of guilt.
"I see people try to make up lack of time and lack of connecting with the pet by giving them extra food or table scraps," he said.
In his Petfit Challenge exercises, Peterson suggests playing tag with the dog, doing abdominal crunches while throwing a toy for the dog to fetch and tossing around a toy for the dog while doing squats.
Playing with the dog has health benefits. In a 2006 study published in the journal Obesity, a group of overweight pet owners with obese dogs lost a greater percentage of their body weight over a year than a control group, which did not own dogs.
The pet owners lost an average of 5.2 percent of their body weight and their dogs lost 15 percent. Unlike the control group, the pet owners reported that they enjoyed exercising because they bonded with their animals. They also learned to measure the amount of food for the dog instead of freely pouring the food into the bowl. They walked their dogs instead of letting them outside for quick bathroom breaks.
The dogs became an exercise coach in a way, said Kushner, the lead author of the study.
"The dog would be crying and begging to go for a walk," he said. "They stand by the door with a leash or start nudging up to you, so they prompted the exercise. Those were the attributes that made it more likely to have the owner get up and go exercise."
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Exercise options for dogs are plenty -- playing fetch, going for walks, taking them to dog parks and obstacle courses. The Food and Drug Administration even approved the first dog obesity drug, Slentrol, in 2007. But what can owners do when their cats get chubby?
Obesity in cats as a result of overeating and under-exercising is a real health danger, said Dr. Fred Scott, director of the Feline Health Center at Cornell University.
"It has a significant impact when you're dealing with 10- to 15-pound cat," Scott said. "Just a couple of pounds is a significant amount of increase. It predisposes the cat to other things. Diabetes is a common problem in cats."
Just like humans, diabetic cats need daily insulin, which can be costly and time-consuming.
Owners can exercise with their cats, too.
Peterson suggests jumping in place or doing abdominal crunches while using a flashlight to beam a light that the cat will chase. He also suggested tying a toy around dumbbells, so when the owner pumps his or her biceps, the cat will try to catch the trinket.
Brown gets Lucky Cat to exercise by using a laser pointer and Silly String. And Lucky Cat helps her exercise.
While Brown sits in the lotus position om-ing her way to inner peace, Lucky Cat sits on her lap and intently watches birds flying nearby. When Brown does leg lunges, stomach crunches and abdominal twists, Lucky Cat comes along for the ride. Brown twists side to side to work her abs, with added weight -- her cat perched on her shoulders. Lucky Cat emits an occasional meow and flicks her tail. Their weekly exercises are chronicled on Brown's blog.
"You're using the cat as a weight, so you can do biceps, abs and they're getting attention," Brown said. "Obviously if the cat gets cranky, don't stress them out or anything. They'll let you know if they're ticked off. That's when you need to stop."
Even if the dogs and cats don't help the owner become fit, their furry companionship has therapeutic benefits for people. Pets have been shown to have a calming effect and soothe people with depression and loneliness.