Taking the (sometimes long) road to health and fitness — and staying on it — is not always the easiest journey. Embracing a healthy lifestyle is as much about the mind as it is about the body. After all, getting and staying fit is not just about tightening up the flesh, it's also about toughening up the resolve. If you've ever thought that having someone by your side on that journey, who shares your pain and your rewards, would make things easier, there’s some pretty convincing evidence that you might be right.
A new study from University College London (UCL) published in this month's JAMA Internal Medicine unveils strong evidence to suggest that the simple act of having a partner accompany you on your new regime significantly increases the chances of its success.
The researchers at UCL used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA), an ongoing scientific survey that collects "multidisciplinary data from a representative sample of the English population aged 50 and older." The authors of the new paper selected 3,722 married or cohabiting English couples from ELSA's database and crunched the numbers for exercise, smoking and reported weight loss.
They discovered that whereas men and women who took up a new exercise routine independently of their physically inactive partners only succeeded in developing a successful routine in a quarter of cases, the figure jumped to 67 percent when it was a team effort. The researchers focused on those who had succeeded in losing a golden figure of 5 percent of total body weight. The number of men achieving that goal was 26 percent when they had partners who also lost weight. Without spousal support, the figure was only 10 percent. Similarly, 36 percent — more than a third — of women also hit the scientists' weight loss target when they shed pounds with a partner compared to 15 percent who had to go it alone.
The figures were equally encouraging for smoking cessation: 48 percent of men succeeded in stopping when paired with an equally determined companion as opposed to only 8 percent who quit alone; women were even more successful with a 50 percent success rate.
"Couples are highly concordant for unhealthy behaviors," the researchers say, "and a change in one partner’s health behavior is often associated with a change in the other partner’s behavior."
Their results show how "when one partner changed to a healthier behavior…the other partner was more likely to make a positive health behavior change than if their partner remained unhealthy."
Perhaps most interesting of all, the study suggests that it is the couple's shared achievement that is the key. The rate of success in all three areas is actually lower in the partners of those who already have healthy behavior patterns. This hints at the mutual benefits of support and competition. When couples feel that they are facing the same obstacles, it is contemplation of their partner’s progress that pushes them, for one reason or the other, toward that extra effort.
"Men and women," says the UCL report, "are more likely to make a positive health behavior change if their partner does too, and with a stronger effect than if the partner had been consistently healthy in that domain. Involving partners in behavior change interventions may therefore help improve outcomes."
This idea tallies with some previous research including that published by Kansas State University in 2012. Brandon Irwin, an assistant professor of kinesiology — the study of human movement — was involved with a study that suggested those who worked out with a partner (who they assumed was marginally fitter) could increase their workout time by up to 200 percent. Student subjects were asked to ride stationary exercise bikes as for long as they could — their initial average came in at around 10 minutes. When the researchers pitted them against imaginary competitors who, they were told, had done slightly better than them — their “competitors” were actually just a looping video of other subjects — the subjects’ willingness to "feel the burn" increased dramatically, almost doubling. When told at a later point that they were now part of a team working for a mutual goal, their performance again significantly increased.
The study, says Irwin, found that "when you're performing with someone who you perceive as a little better than you, you tend to give more effort than you normally would alone." He also suggests that the explanation for his subjects increased ability may be that they "built a rapport over time and didn't want to let the partner down." Which makes sense if you're both heading for the same goal. Whether it is competition or support — or maybe a little of both — having some kind of yardstick against which you can measure you performance and progress certainly seems to bear fruit.
So, whatever you're letting go of — extra weight or the evil weed — it seems like having someone at your back is the way to go. Even if it's just because you secretly want to show them a clean pair of heels.