You want to reduce your risk for serious health problems including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes — and that involves exercising regularly. But for millions of Americans, getting motivated to work out can seem next to impossible.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults exercise at a moderate intensity for a minimum of 150 minutes per week or at a vigorous intensity for at least 75 minutes per week. However, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show fewer than half of us meet that goal.
But if you are married or in a domestic partnership, researchers have found a strategy to help both you and your better half get off the couch and into healthier shape. All it takes is either you or your spouse increasing physical activity, according to a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.
The researchers found that when one partner started exercising more, their spouse was 40 to 70 percent more likely to do the same and meet exercise recommendations.
"When it comes to physical fitness, the best peer pressure to get moving could be coming from the person who sits across from you at the breakfast table," said doctoral student Laura Cobb, a co-leader of the study.
The research team analyzed data on over 3,000 pairs of spouses collected over several decades and found that couples who received counseling together about the benefits of being more physically active were significantly more likely to exercise more often than couples who were counseled separately.
"There's an epidemic of people in this country who don't get enough exercise and we should harness the power of the couple to ensure people are getting a healthy amount of physical activity,” Cobb said.
If you are middle aged or older, it’s not too late for you and your spouse to start a healthy exercise routine, especially if you do it together. A study of 3,722 couples, either married or living together and over the age of 50, revealed those who made working out a team effort were likely to reach their fitness goals.
The researchers, from the British Heart Foundation and the National Institute on Aging, also found that other healthy lifestyle changes, like losing weight and stopping smoking, were more likely to succeed if a person’s partner was making positive health changes, too.
So why aren’t more couples running, biking, and hitting the gym together? The difficulty some people have talking about the need for their partner or themselves to make healthy lifestyle changes can be a stumbling block, according to Benjamin Karney, PhD, and Thomas Bradbury, PhD, co-directors of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Relationship Institute. The psychologists studied thousands of hours of video recordings of married couples talking with each other — and arguing — about the need to lose weight and exercise more.
"Yes, couples were turning to each other for support, but their conversations went awry in more cases than not. The couples struggled to have these conversations, and they were as surprised as we were at how difficult it was," said Karney.
The UCLA research revealed discussing weight and appearance can sound like criticism and brings up the question of whether partners are still attracted to each other. But not having the conversation about a healthier lifestyle can backfire, too.
"It's a delicate balance," Bradbury said. "If your spouse says, 'You look fantastic the way you are,' the partner can think, 'OK, then I'll stay on the couch and eat more chips.' "
Couples who were able to talk about losing weight and getting more exercise without causing hard feelings typically offered their partners motivation and encouragement. "They said things to each other like, 'I love you and that's not going to change, but I'm going to help you stay healthy and lose weight. We'll work on this together,’” said Bradbury who, along with Karney, used their research to write “Love Me Slender: How Smart Couples Team Up to Lose Weight, Exercise More, and Stay Healthy Together” (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster).
If you don’t have a spouse, consider reaching out to a friend or co-worker and committing to help each other exercise more. Going for a vigorous walk before or after work most days of the week can be all it takes to improve your health — and that of your exercise buddy.
Simply planning an exercise partnership with a friend greatly boosts the odds you’ll both stick to your workout goals once you talk about your intentions, according to a study from the University of Leeds in the UK.
"Specific plans regarding when, where and how a person will act have been termed 'implementation intentions'," said researcher Mark Conner, PhD. " You set up cues that prompt your planned behavior.”
Conner found people who planned a work-out routine together with a buddy were still exercising more after six months than those trying to do it alone. “When all else is equal, forming exercise plans with a partner will increase your chances of actually sticking to them,” Conner said.
June 15, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN