Mallory Ham is an extreme sports kind of guy. The 46-year-old meteorologist from Simi Valley lives to climb rocks and ice, compete in triathlons and ride mountain bikes at night.
His wife does not. For the first half of their 19-year marriage, Kelli Ham, 44, dutifully, even heroically, accompanied her husband on many of his adventures. "I was miserable. I was always at the back of the pack, or at the base of some mountain waiting all day for Mallory and the others to come back. I felt I was either slowing him down or struggling to keep up. It was never fun."
Although some couples relish the shared activity and consider it a form of healthy bonding, others find that exercising together does more harm than good. People who otherwise enjoy their mates' company find them too competitive, too slow, too bossy or just too irritating when working out. For them, exercising together can cause the relationship to suffer.
The Hams are a classic example of what Carol Lindquist, a Laguna Beach psychotherapist who works with couples, calls a case of mixed intensity, one of the most common causes of exercise incompatibility. Lindquist classifies exercisers into three types: the strollers and stretchers, who consider exercise a form of relaxation; those who like intensity; and those who like to compete.
"For married couples to be good exercise partners, they have to match," she says. "If they don't, they should find other shared interests and exercise separately."
Katie and Roberto Guerrero of San Juan Capistrano have met their match in each other. Both intense and competitive, the couple works out together almost every day -- usually harmoniously. They run, Spin, lift weights and play a mean game of tennis. When they run, Katie, 43, sets the pace. Left to his own devices, Roberto, 44, a professional race car driver, has only one speed, she says -- "as fast as possible. And if there's anyone within a half a mile of him, he has to pass."
If there's ever an argument, they say, it's during tennis. "She looks so nice, but you should see her on the court," Roberto says. "She calls me names." That's why, every time they step onto the tennis court for their weekly mixed-doubles game, they kiss good-bye. "That's our way of saying we're stepping into a different zone," says Katie.
For the Guerreros, the pros of working out together far outweigh the cons. For one, they enjoy the chance to talk. Plus, their three kids, ages 17, 14 and 9, see that their parents place a priority on fitness and on spending time together. On the occasional day when one doesn't feel like working out, the more motivated partner pushes the reluctant mate along. "The one who got pushed is always so grateful," says Katie. "No one ever says they wished they hadn't worked out."
Because the Guerreros are both competitive, they understand and appreciate the competitive drive in each other, says Lindquist. But not every couple can withstand that level of competition or even enjoy spending the workout together. Some people would rather share that time with a friend, even talking about their mates as a form of therapy. Some have enough trouble carving out time to work out and don't want to get hung up waiting for their partner. Others just crave the time alone.
Compatibility and compromise
After 12 years as the official coach for the L.A. Marathon, Pat Connelly has seen all kinds. "Some couples really help each other do better. Others are so competitive that their workouts, which are supposed to reduce stress, are counterproductive. They're in too much conflict to relax."
When one partner runs faster, for example, it's sometimes hard for the one left behind. Slower partners can feel their faster mates are uncaring. They can feel intimidated and just quit, leaving the more gung-ho partner feeling abandoned. Or, worse, they both quit. When following up with these couples, Connelly commonly hears that the partner who got mad made the other partner "pay for it all day."
"If the activity is going to be destructive, they're better off exercising separately," he said
In other instances, the more experienced athlete can become overzealous in coaching his or her partner, pushing too hard and creating resentment. For example, Jean Connelly, Pat's wife of 35 years, hated taking instruction from her husband and hired a personal trainer, one who ultimately coached her through her first marathon -- at age 63 -- last year. "I didn't like him bossing me around," she said of her husband.
Because few couples are well-matched in ability and temperament, those who want to work out together on friendly terms often forge a compromise. Connelly often suggests couples spend three out of five workouts exercising at a pace that's comfortable for both; on the two other days, they can work out separately to push their own goals. He and his wife compromise this way: Five days a week they walk together for 3 miles, at which point his wife heads home and Connelly runs 7 miles. "We find a lot of pleasure in those 3 miles."
When a couple can enjoy exercise together, the shared activity boosts the relationship, says Lindquist. But if they don't enjoy it, it's best not forced.
Their separate ways together
Years after Mallory Ham stopped pushing his wife to like his sports, the couple found one they could share. The turning point came when Kelli saw a mailer Mallory received after he had finished a marathon. The brochure was for the L.A. Road Runners, a group that meets regularly to train for the L.A. Marathon. "Walkers Welcome," it said. That got her attention. She thought walking to train for a marathon might help her get in shape and lose a few pounds. It was also something she and Mallory could do together -- sort of. So the Hams joined the Road Runners, which has 17 pace groups for folks of all speeds. He teamed up with the 8.5-minute milers, she with the 12.5-minute milers. Now, every Saturday, they hook up with their separate pace groups to train, and meet each other at the finish.
Since joining, Kelli has finished three L.A. Marathons (by walking and jogging), and is gearing up for her fourth in March. Though her best time is 6 hours, 18 minutes to her husband's 4 hours, the two feel they've finally found a bond through exercise. "Even though we finish the marathon at different times, we share a goal," said Mallory.
Though he still pursues his other extreme sports, because, he says, "they're something I probably need," he no longer tries to talk his wife into loving them too. "When I stopped trying to create her into what I wanted her to be, we both were a lot happier."