June 2015 Issue

Focus On Fitness: Workouts With A Buddy
By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 17 No. 6 P. 56

Research shows exercising with a partner can have a positive impact on fitness and health.

"The couple that sweats together, stays together" is a common motto for motivating couples to exercise—not only for their health but also for relationship success. Resolutions to maintain a regular exercise routine are easily derailed by work, family obligations, and lack of motivation. Can working out with your spouse or partner improve motivation and commitment to exercise? Research—old and new—suggests that exercising together doubles the benefits.

New research presented at the March 2015 American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health indicates that the activity level of one spouse can significantly influence the activity level of the other. Physical activity among 3,261 married couples from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study was assessed over an extended period (1987 to 1995). The researchers found that if one spouse met physical activity recommendations at the first study visit, the other spouse was considerably more likely to meet the same recommendations.

For men not physically active at the first visit, those whose spouses met fitness recommendations at both visits were most likely to begin to meet recommendations; results were similar for women. The public health researchers noted that spousal influence can have a positive impact on long-term fitness and health1 and that the "power of the couple" should be harnessed to improve fitness.2

Notably, the influence of a spouse or partner on exercise was recognized 20 years earlier by researchers in kinesiology from Indiana University.3 In 1995, a year-long study of 16 married couples compared with married singles (16 married men and 14 married women who exercised without their spouses) found significantly higher attendance and lower dropout rates in a university fitness program in the married couples who participated together. The researchers hypothesized that better exercise adherence primarily was influenced by spousal support rather than self-motivation.

Make a Fitness Date
Research results suggest that sedentary couples might have more success if they commit to an exercise program together. There are many activities and exercises that involve plenty of couples interaction, including:

• Couples CrossFit classes: Many CrossFit facilities now offer couples classes. Partners sign up together and participate in classes that often have friendly competitions as incentives. This activity is most appropriate for intermediate to advanced exercisers.

• Partner yoga: Yoga studios offer classes and workshops involving poses that use partners for support and strength, which provides a physical workout as well as develops emotional closeness. Appropriate for any fitness level, but beginners to yoga should inform instructors before class that they're new to yoga.

• Indoor climbing: Facilities that offer indoor climbing are a great opportunity for a full-body climbing wall workout that requires partner assistance and support.

• Dance classes: Professional dancers make it look easy, but ballroom dancing is quite the cardiovascular workout. Signing up for a salsa dancing class as a couple provides a fun, energetic activity. Dance workouts are now more popular since TV shows such as Dancing with the Stars are so well publicized.

• Martial arts classes: Some martial arts studios and organizations offer classes and private instruction for couples.

• Sports and games: Learn to play tennis, racquetball, or golf together. If golfing, skip the cart and walk the course for more exercise.  

For couples who simply enjoy the same physical activities, scheduling fitness dates at the pool for lap swimming or water aerobics, or at the local park for a nature walk or trail hike combine social time with exercise. Or, with a few inexpensive pieces of exercise equipment, such as resistance bands and medicine balls, couples can work out at home. Clients can view exercise ideas for partners from the fitness organization IDEA at www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/partner-exercise.

Separate, But Together
However, finding mutually enjoyable physical activities to engage in regularly may be challenging for some couples. What happens if one likes to run and the other prefers to walk? Or, one really enjoys group fitness classes and the other doesn't? For couples with different preferences, coordinating and committing to exercise time together may be easier and ultimately more effective than trying to find one activity for both to enjoy. Compromise and consideration are key for long-term adherence in this situation. If one partner feels pressured into a certain activity, resentment may interfere with fitness goals. Some suggestions for clients whose exercise preferences differ include the following:

• Travel to the gym together, so one partner can take a Zumba class and the other can work out on exercise equipment.

• Visit a local track, where a runner and walker can each "do their own thing" around the track, and meet each other off the track after their workouts for some strength and stretching exercises.

• Schedule time to try fitness activities that are new to both partners. Never tried yoga? Browse local yoga class offerings and choose a class format that appeals to both, or have one partner pick a class one week, and the other partner choose a class the following week. Interested in water sports and live near a lake or bay? Try paddleboarding, canoeing, or kayaking with an instructor or guide.

• Sign up for a fitness competition or fun fitness event. Fitness fundraising events like walkathons to benefit cancer patients are frequent occurrences in most communities. Find a worthy cause that appeals as a couple and sign up. More competitive couples with different exercise preferences can join competitions as a team. If one partner runs and the other cycles, find a biathlon/duathlon that includes these two activities.

• Schedule a couples session with a personal trainer who can help assess the fitness levels of each individual and provide assistance and instruction in appropriate exercises. Commit to a series of couples' personal training sessions to get in better shape together.

Nutrition professionals who are providing couples counseling can incorporate this advice for physical activity during sessions. Having the support of a spouse or partner for both diet and exercise is likely to reinforce lifestyle changes and help couples better achieve health goals.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care research analyst/consultant in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area.

1. Cobb LK, Godino JG, Selvin E, Kucharska-Newton A, Coresh J, Koton S. Poster abstract presentations. Abstract P275: physical activity among married couples in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. Circulation. 2015;131:AP275.

2. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Improving your fitness could improve fitness of your spouse. ScienceDaily. March 5, 2015. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150305205758.htm

3. Wallace JP, Raglin JS, Jastremski CA. Twelve month adherence of adults who joined a fitness program with a spouse vs without a spouse. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1995;35(3):206-213.