A Four-Legged Fitness Partner: An Interview with Lea Lynch
Workout partners are commonly seen in the fitness world. Young moms who walk the school track together while their children are at soccer practice, women who pair up for a yoga class or Zumba, and “gym rats” who lift weights together every morning at dawn all rely upon others to provide motivation, keep them accountable for health goals, and add a fun, social aspect to getting their health and wellness back on track. But, could one of the best partners in achieving a healthy lifestyle be a dog? Lea Lynch, founder of the FosterFit health program, thinks so.
Creating a New Type of Fitness Program
Lynch grew up in Lafayette, Indiana where she developed an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age. Between lemonade stands and her own magnet shop, Lynch was always developing a new business and putting her creativity to use.
She went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Digital Design from the University of Cincinnati in 2003. After college, she worked in corporate America prior to running her own consultancy for ten years. While she attained a great deal of success, consulting took a toll on both her health and well-being, and she knew that it was time to create some balance in her life.
In 2011, Lynch enrolled in Canisius College’s Anthrozoology graduate program. During her time in graduate school, entrepreneurship remained important as she completed tasks such creating an internship tailored to her specific interests. Additionally, Lynch grew passionate about forming an animal-assisted intervention that would assist a large number of people.
“I had taken a course about animal-assisted interventions and noticed that many interventions were intended for small subsets of the population who had special needs or circumstances,” said Lynch. “I wanted to create an intervention that might be helpful for the masses.”
With health and wellness as priorities in her own life, Lynch wanted to create a program that would help the large percentage of the population who struggle with weight loss. Once learning that more than 50 percent of pets are obese, she decided to develop a program that could be beneficial for both humans and animals. FosterFit, the nonprofit Lynch founded in Savannah, Georgia in the fall of 2014, aims to achieve this goal.
The FosterFit Program
As part of the ten-week FosterFit program, participants are matched with foster dogs from the local Humane Society. For the duration of the program, the human-dog pair is a social support team, living, eating, and exercising together. The pair works with three coaches - a nutritionist, a fitness coach, and a dog trainer - who help guide and instruct them on leading a healthy lifestyle. During the ten weeks, the human wears a Fitbit™ and the dog wears a Whistle™ to monitor physical activity and track progress. The twosome also attends seminars and group activities such as classes on baking healthy dog treats, hosted by a local bakery. At the end of the program, participants are recognized for their progress and, hopefully, decide to adopt the foster dog and continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If the FosterFit participant decides not to adopt, the dog is adopted by another family. By the end of the program, the dogs are healthy and have received extensive training and socialization, making them highly adoptable.
The partnership with foster dogs is what makes the FosterFit program so unique and, possibly, so beneficial. Traditional weight-loss programs encourage focus on one’s self and require constant and sometimes difficult self-reflection. By adding a dog to the equation, a person turns his or her focus onto the health of the animal. While working to get the dog’s health on track through activities such as walking, spending time outdoors, and preparing homemade meals, the human also becomes healthier. The person forms a strong bond with the foster dog and feels a sense of pride for the dog’s success through FosterFit. The dog provides social support to its human partner, and the program benefits both members of the team.
FosterFit’s Pilot Program
Local businesses and partners have been helpful with spreading the word about FosterFit. Several articles also helped generate interest in the program during its pilot recruiting period. In fact, more than 20 applications were received for participation in the pilot that launched in February 2015.
The pilot includes nine participants and foster dogs and is scheduled to conclude on April 25, 2015. While the research study that is being conducted in conjunction with the pilot will not publish its results for several more months, the pilot has proven to be a great success and led to weight loss in both the humans and dogs and improved behavior, skin, and coat in the dogs. Also, the majority of participants have decided to adopt their dog partner, which for Lynch is one of the most fulfilling results of the program.
“We always hoped that this would be the case, and it is truly heartwarming to see the bond that these participants and their dogs have developed over the last few weeks,” said Lynch.
Additionally, the pilot has provided the FosterFit team with ideas on how to improve their program. They plan to work on scheduling a wider range of class days and times so that attendance can be greater. The results of the research study may also lead to adjustments in the content of the program. Currently, Lynch’s goal is to do whatever it takes to support the people and dogs on their weight loss and health journeys.
Why Fitness with a Dog is Successful
FosterFit serves as an innovative, new option for people who are looking to improve their well-being. People decide to become involved with FosterFit because they want to help the foster dogs while improving their own health and lifestyle. Once immersed in the program, Lynch has found that many of the participants want to use what they have learned to give back to the community. For instance, the group will be visiting a local childcare program to demonstrate exercises that can be performed with a dog and, hopefully, inspire the children to find new ways to get fit with their pets.
Lynch has not only been impressed with the involvement and enthusiasm of the human participants, but she has also been amazed by how quickly the dogs’ behavior changed after starting with FosterFit. When the nine dogs in the pilot first came out of the shelter and started the program, they were rambunctious, barking, jumping, and tugging on the leash. After only two weeks in the program, the same dogs could walk gracefully, wait patiently, and perform exercises with a level of confidence.
“It’s a testament to the dedication and effort put forth by their human counterparts,” said Lynch. “They are true partners and have come a long way, together, in a short time.”
The Future of FosterFit
The success that FosterFit has seen so far has motivated Lynch to work on expanding the program to include a greater number of participants. She would also like to look into the option of having people use the pets that they currently have at home as their partner in the program. There is also the possibility of transitioning FosterFit into a corporate wellness program since such platforms are being implemented in companies across the country and the majority of businesspeople own a dog.
Recently, Lynch participated in FastPitch, a competition in Georgia for entrepreneurs and start-ups. FosterFit was selected as the winner in the Service Entrepreneur category and was awarded a meeting with Angel investors which will hopefully provide the program with the expertise it needs to move into the next phase.
Lynch is excited for the future and emphasizes the fact that FosterFit is a great option for people of any fitness level because it only requires moderate exercise such as taking a daily walk.
“[FosterFit] is effective because it’s based in science, and it’s compelling because it’s a lot of fun,” said Lynch.
To learn more about FosterFit, visit their website.