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Canine fitness trend has pooches panting to fight obesity

Pekingese Sumomo's legs tremble as she balances on an exercise ball at Wanwan Fitness in the Tokyo suburban city of Inagi, on April 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

INAGI, Tokyo -- Obesity and a lack of exercise isn't healthy for humans or dogs, and recently "dog fitness" programs have been gaining popularity so humans' best friends can live longer by our sides.

In a small pool, 10-year-old female Pekingese "Sumomo" (plum) swims smoothly through the water. This is the dog specialty gym "Wanwan Fitness" (Woof woof fitness), which opened inside Sports Club NAS Wakabadai in the suburban Tokyo city of Inagi in 2015. The concept behind the gym is for dogs to always live healthily alongside their owners. The gym offers individualized fitness programs to meet the age and physical fitness of our furry best friends.

"Sumo-chan, let's use your back legs too," says gym owner Yuki Fukazawa, 32, as he supports Sumomo's legs while she swims. After roughly 1 to 2 minutes of doggy paddling, Sumomo rests on Fukazawa's legs while he checks her heart rate and breathing.

"Exercising in the water is said to be three times harder than on land. It is quite hard," he explains. When dogs gain weight, the risk of diseases developing in their joints increases, and when their joints hurt, they become unable to walk. Unable to walk, exercise itself becomes troublesome. Exercising in the water where there is less stress on the animals' joints is the best method for even dogs that have trouble moving to build core and muscle strength, he says.

Pekingese Sumomo doggy paddles in a pool while being supported by her trainer Yuki Fukazawa at Wanwan Fitness in the Tokyo suburban city of Inagi, on April 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

Fukazawa also recommends balance ball exercises as another way to prevent canine obesity. By standing on the unsteady plastic ball, the dogs can learn balance while also naturally training muscles in their bellies, back and other places that are not used during conventional walks around the neighborhood. If a dog doesn't want to get on the exercise ball, Fukazawa suggests using treats as an incentive.

"When their legs tremble when they are on the ball, it is evidence that they are using their muscles," he says. "It's important for them to increase muscle mass so they don't become bedridden in the future."

Sumomo, who began attending doggy fitness classes three years ago, is dealing with joint problems of her own. As she got older, there were times when she would collapse during walks from exhaustion or pain. But through regular training at the gym, she has been able to keep her weight under 5 kilograms. Now, the muscles she built in training are helping her to move her joints, and she can now run around playfully.

Her owner in her 40s says, "When she can't walk, she gets upset," as she takes photos of her "beloved daughter" Sumomo on her cellphone. "At first I felt that something like fitness for dogs was a little extravagant, but she's part of the family and I want her to live a healthy and long life. I'm glad we decided to come."

When the fitness program first opened, there were only about two dog-human pairs a day, but as of April 2018, there were a total of some 150 pairs attending training sessions each month. In some cases, the dogs have come upon the recommendation of a nearby veterinary hospital, and it appears that the sense of crisis about doggy obesity has spread among owners. A 30-minute session includes counseling and stretching and runs health-conscious owners 6,000 yen for a swimming workout, or 4,000 yen for exercise ball training.

Ten-year-old Pekingese Sumomo, a regular at Wanwan Fitness, poses in the Tokyo suburban city of Inagi, on April 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

"Older dogs also have deteriorated organ function, so obesity can have a greater effect on the health of an animal than the owner may think," points out Toyokazu Kobayashi, the head of Grace Animal Hospital in Tokyo's Suginami Ward. Along with joint troubles, obesity can raise the risk of heart and respiratory system diseases as well as diabetes -- just like humans. But some owners do not take their dog's weight seriously, thinking that their chubbiness is cute or always being quick to give them treats.

"It's important for owners to have an understanding of the ideal weight for their beloved dogs," explains Kobayashi. "Generally, their weight at 1 year old is the baseline, and if it increases by more than 15 percent, then owners should pay attention." When in doubt, Kobayashi says it's best to consult with a vet when taking your furry friend in for shots or other regular health check-ups.

"Exercise is important to extend the healthy lifespans of our dogs, and is not limited simply to taking them out on walks. Sharply reducing the amount of food they eat or putting them on a crash diet is out -- it's crucial to take things day by day," he says.

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