Couples who try to shape up together have better odds of success

A couple hikes in Topanga State Park. Men and women are more likely to make a positive health change if their partner shares the journey, a new study says.
(Beatrice de Gea / Los Angeles Times)

If you want to improve your odds of losing weight, quitting smoking or sticking with an exercise plan, researchers in England have this advice: Get your spouse to do it with you.

Women and men alike were far more likely to succeed in making one of these lifestyle changes if their husband or wife did it too, according to a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The benefit of having a partner was striking, researchers found:

* Having a spouse who lost weight improved one’s odds of slimming down by a factor of 3.

* Having a spouse who became more physically active made people five times more likely to add exercise to their weekly routine.


* Having a spouse who gave up smoking was associated with an 11-fold increase in kicking the habit.

These figures are based on the experiences of 3,722 couples who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Study volunteers answered questions about a variety of health habits once every two to four years. Generally speaking, smokers tended to be married to smokers, couch potatoes were married to couch potatoes, and if one half of a couple was overweight or obese, the other half was too.

But when there were differences, the habits of the healthier spouse tended to rub off on his or her partner. For instance, male smokers whose wives didn’t smoke when they joined the study were twice as likely to quit in the next two years than were men whose wives were smokers as well. For women who smoked, having a nonsmoking husband at the start of the study meant they were nearly four times more likely to quit in the next two years compared with women whose husbands smoked too.

There was a similar pattern with exercise. If only one spouse exercised at least once a week, the odds that the other spouse would join in were nearly three times greater.

But the best-case scenario was that both spouses started out with room for improvement – and then one of them actually did. In those situations, the other spouse was far more likely to improve as well.

There are lots of reasons why this could be, according to the research team from University College London. One possibility is that husbands and wives resolved to change their behavior together. Another is that one partner’s success motivates the other to follow suit. A third is that it’s a simple spillover effect – if one prepares more healthful meals, the spouse benefits too.


Whatever the reasons, the study findings should be a clear sign to doctors and other health experts that if they want to see someone shape up, they should target a patient’s spouse at the same time, the researchers wrote: “People may be more successful in changing their behavior if their partner does it with them.”

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