Well: Exercising a Fat Dog (and Yourself)


Credit Illustration by Ben Wiseman

From the Well archives.

The chubby, inert pet dog has become a familiar household sight in richer countries. And yet there lies a possible boon to the out-of-shape among us. A recent study suggests that being told one’s pet is dangerously overweight might provide the impetus that gets an owner moving.

It might seem that having a pet dog would result in considerable physical activity, and that’s true, broadly speaking. A 2013 review of studies related to dog ownership concluded that as a group, dog owners spend almost an hour more per week walking than people without dogs. Even so, a survey from 2008 conducted in Australia found that nearly a quarter of all dog owners reported never walking their pets. This population of dog owners, studies show, actually engage in less physical activity each week than people without a dog.

A majority of dog owners, of course, are deeply attached to their pets, whether they walk them or not. That bond prompted a group of scientists, veterinarians and physicians at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Md., and other institutions to consider whether people might be willing to undertake a health-and-fitness regimen targeted at their dog, even if they had little enthusiasm for such a program for themselves.

The researchers recruited 32 dog owners who visited a veterinary clinic in Maryland. Their dogs varied widely in age, breed and size, but all were overweight or obese and, by and large, sedentary. So, too, were most of their owners (although the only criterion for their participation was that their dogs be rotund). Half the volunteers were told by a veterinarian to watch their dog’s nutrition and monitor its health. The rest were told that their dog was overweight and needed more exercise. These owners were given specific exercise prescriptions, which generally advised walking the dog for at least 30 minutes every day.

Three months later, the volunteers and their dogs were re-evaluated. Both owners and pets in the dog-walking group had lost weight. But more interesting, those who had been told only that their pets were worryingly heavy also began exercising their pets and themselves. They reported walking far more often than they did before they got health warnings for their dogs, and both they and their pets were thinner.

The upshot, says Capt. Mark B. Stephens M.D., a professor of family medicine at Uniformed Services University and a co-author of the study — it was published in September in the journal Anthrozoös — is that “love and concern for a dog can be a powerful motivation for exercise.” Which is not to say, he adds, that people should adopt a dog as a kind of fitness device. Unlike a treadmill, Marley cannot be abandoned in the basement when you tire of working out. On the other hand, no device will ever be so happy to see you lace up your walking shoes.

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2014 Holiday Gifts for the Home

Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes Complete

The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (Columbia/Legacy) & The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (Columbia/Legacy)

Holed up in the Catskills in 1967, Bob Dylan and the Band warmed up with recordings of country, blues and gospel favorites in their homes in and around Woodstock, N.Y. Then, having set aside current rock, they plunged into a new batch of masterpieces: songs that were absurd, heartsick, biblical, bawdy, playful, rooted and footloose. They were made as demo recordings that Mr. Dylan’s publisher offered to other groups. But in their casual sessions, Mr. Dylan and the Band were putting America’s past through a time warp; they harked back to honky-tonks, juke joints, churches and sock hops but had wayward thoughts all their own. The demos were bootlegged and hailed, and in 1975, Robbie Robertson of the Band shaped the 1967 recordings and some Band material into the official album “The Basement Tapes,” overdubbing and adjusting the originals. Bootleggers escalated with more 1967 material. Now Mr. Dylan’s camp trumps them with everything that can be salvaged from the original tapes, fragments and all: overdubs removed, multiple takes collected, sound restored as much as possible. The six-disc set is exhaustive and exhausting, from very loose cover songs through a final disc of distorted recordings that only full-time Dylanologists will replay (though “Next Time on the Highway” and “That’s the Breaks” are tantalizing). But the songs released in 1975, now unadorned, are still zany and deep (and often in multiple takes), and later discoveries like “I’m Not There” and “Wild Wolf” deserve to join them. It’s also illuminating to hear Mr. Dylan singing material he’d hand over to the Band. Still, for most listeners, the two-disc “Basement Tapes Raw” is ample and well selected. – Jon Pareles

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Once Celebrated in Russia, the Programmer Pavel Durov Chooses Exile

“Me myself, I’m not a big fan of the idea of countries,” Mr. Durov said, wearing a custom-made cross between a hoodie and a sport coat.

When he arrived with little warning in London for his first interview outside cyberspace since leaving Russia, he was en route to San Francisco, where he appeared at a technology conference on Tuesday. He is surfacing to showcase his new messaging app, Telegram, for people craving privacy and security.

His odyssey reflects the changing nature of the Internet in Russia.

The Internet was once seen as a way to diversify Russia’s economy beyond oil. When VKontakte started in 2006, Mr. Durov says, he envisioned his country as a tax-free and libertarian utopia for technologists.

“The best thing about Russia at that time was the Internet sphere was completely not regulated,” he said. “In some ways, it was more liberal than the United States.”

Now the Internet is viewed with suspicion by Mr. Putin, who has called it a “C.I.A. project” and has taken steps to insulate Russia from the rest of the digital world. One leading Russian activist recently said the government was on a “campaign to shut down the Internet.”

“Since I’m obviously a believer in free markets,” Mr. Durov said, “it’s hard for me to understand the current direction of the country.”

Russia’s economy is also increasingly isolated, with its currency plummeting amid Western sanctions. The government is now predicting a recession for next year. Mr. Putin’s big challenge is falling oil prices, which Mr. Durov calls “the only chance” for economic and political reform.


VKontakte, a social network, is more popular in Russia than Facebook. Credit Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

“When the petrol prices are high, there is no incentive for those reforms,” he said. “It can stay like this forever; nobody really cares.”

As the tensions in Russia play out, Mr. Durov says he is focused on Telegram, which he started last year.

There will be no outside investors, he says, no ads and no marketing, and it is available free, though he is likely to eventually charge for additional services. He says he has about 50 million users, almost entirely outside Russia.

While he is soft-spoken, his rebellious humor has gotten him in trouble, as he will be the first to admit.

In 2011, the government demanded he shut down the pages of opposition politicians after controversial parliamentary elections. He responded by posting to Twitter a picture of a dog with its tongue out and wearing a hoodie. During the standoff with the SWAT team, which took place soon after, he wouldn’t answer the door. They went home after an hour.

Then there was Victory Day in 2012, when Russia celebrates the defeat of the Nazis. He posted on Twitter that “67 years ago Stalin defended from Hitler his right to suppress Soviet people.”

It created an outcry at a time of rising nationalism.

Mr. Durov grinned. “It was a disaster.”

A few weeks later, he and other VKontakte executives folded 5,000-ruble notes — worth about $155 at the time — into paper airplanes and threw them out an office window, sparking a fight in the street below.

He said that from his vantage point he couldn’t see what was happening on the street and stopped when he was told people were fighting.

Mr. Durov has also described himself, with tongue in cheek, as a Pastafarian, a quirky atheistic “faith” that can involve wearing a colander on your head.

“I like to make fun of serious matters,” he says, adding that he’s closer to a Taoist or Buddhist. “I’m a peaceful creature; I’m vegetarian. I don’t like wars.”

By 2013, the government was bearing down. He was aggressively prosecuted for a disputed hit-and-run involving a traffic officer, which Mr. Durov says never happened. At the same time, he learned 48 percent of VKontakte had been sold to allies of Mr. Putin, despite a contractual requirement to give him right of first refusal.

Mr. Durov learned programming from his brother, Nikolai, a mathematician and Mr. Durov’s right-hand man at VKontakte and Telegram. By 11, the younger Mr. Durov was coding his own versions of games like Tetris. The two developed a strategy game set in ancient China, which they called Lao Unit.

At St. Petersburg State University, Mr. Durov studied linguistics. In lieu of military service, he trained in propaganda, studying Sun Tzu, Genghis Khan and Napoleon, and he learned to make posters aimed at influencing foreign soldiers.


VKontakte’s offices in St. Petersburg, Russia. After allies of President Vladimir Putin took control of his company in 2013, Pavel Durov sold his share for an undisclosed sum and left the country. Credit Anatoly Maltsev/European Pressphoto Agency

The posters said things like “You are surrounded, surrender, there’s no hope,” or they would suggest to foreign soldiers that “some other guy is entertaining himself with your wife,” he recalled.

His main interest was developing a social network. A friend who studied in America showed him Facebook, then in its infancy, and he learned from it.

“Some things like the layout of the early VKontakte was very influenced by Facebook,” Mr. Durov said. “Otherwise it could take ages for me to build, and I was not a professional designer.”

He also recruited fellow linguistics students to build a database catering to the post-Soviet university system, a step he said gave VKontakte “a tremendous competitive advantage.”

In 2007, he decided to allow users to upload audio and video files, without regard to copyright. Such policies have drawn criticism from the United States Trade Representative and lawsuits from major record labels.

“Some people told me when I was implementing it that I would go to jail the next day,” he said. “I was very careless.”

Demonstrations in 2011 over parliamentary elections resulted in a government showdown. During the SWAT standoff at his home that followed, he called his brother.

“I realized I don’t have a safe means of communications with him,” he said, adding, “That’s how Telegram started.”

Telegram is competing in a crowded field of messaging apps that promise varying degrees of security. Telegram has its fans and detractors, but it was rated respectably in a recent evaluation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Telegram company, based in Berlin, has a deliberately complex structure of scattered global shell companies intended to keep it a step ahead of subpoenas from any one government.

“This is very unusual for Russian entrepreneurs, to succeed outside of Russia,” said Sergei Guriev, a prominent economist who fled Russia last year. “He may not be a usual person in many ways, but he is definitely a very talented entrepreneur.”

When Mr. Durov sold his stake in VKontakte last December, there was speculation it was worth a few hundred million dollars. Mr. Durov would not give a specific figure, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

“In my days in Russia, I visited some very rich guys,” he said. “I visited big ships, private airplanes, houses — and I know for sure I don’t want this for myself.”

“I’m very happy right now without any property anywhere,” he added. “I consider myself a legal citizen of the world.”

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