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March 26, 2021

Better together: Partners up the odds of living healthy

Relationships bring accountability, support and motivation — essential components to adopting a healthy lifestyle

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Louis Bezich Relationships Courtesy/Louis Bezich

Louis Bezich, right, credits his wife, Maria, with helping him maintain a healthy lifestyle.

I'm a lucky guy. My advocacy for 50-plus men's health and, more importantly, my personal lifestyle receive an extraordinary level of support from my wife. Not only does she accommodate the sometimes-quirky nuances of my diet and fitness routines, but her own commitment to healthy behavior offers further inspiration for me to stay on course.

Frequently, our conversations revolve around eating healthy, workout milestones and support with recovery from minor injuries and setbacks. The dialogue creates a nice household synergy and a commonality that has benefits to our relationship well beyond our physical state.

For men seeking to adopt healthy habits, the power of a supportive spouse, partner or friend is significant and well documented. The science shows that when it comes to adopting a healthy lifestyle, there is a distinct advantage to paring up in the effort.

The science of support systems

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, women and men were more likely to quit smoking, become physically active and lose weight if their partners joined them in the new healthy behavior. The study, led by Sarah E. Jackson of University College in London, suggested that this mutual influence on one another's behavior implies that health interventions could be more effective if they were targeted to couples as opposed to individuals.

Endorsing this finding is a study reported in the Association for Psychological Science from Olga Stavrova, a researcher at Tiburg University in the Netherlands. The study indicates that life satisfaction is known to be associated with behaviors that can affect health, including diet and exercise, and people who have a happy, active spouse, for example, are likely to have an active lifestyle themselves. In a precautionary note, Stavrova reports that the opposite is also likely to be true.

It works both ways

Reinforcing the connection between partners when it comes to health behaviors — positive or negative — is a study published in JAMA Open Network that reported 79% of couples had less-than ideal scores for heart risk, mainly due to unhealthy diets and inadequate exercise. Commenting on the study, Jannie Nielsen, an assistant professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, says that partners tend to share habits, especially what they eat, and acknowledges that having a support system really helps people change their behaviors because behaviors are hard to change.

The model extends to friendships

The value of a relationship in supporting behavior change is not limited to marriage or a live-in situation. According to the Mayo Clinic, friendships can have a major impact on your health and well-being. This includes encouraging you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise.

University of Utah Health says that new romantic relationships are a boon to weight loss and good health since we want to look and act our very best for that someone special. The experts there believe that there is nothing like a flurry of complements to motivate us to maintain our physical appearance.

Good news for men

A Harvard Medical School report describes compelling research suggesting that married people enjoy better health than single people, and that many of these health benefits are more pronounced for married men than for married women. Among these benefits are: a longer life, fewer strokes and heart attacks and a lower chance of becoming depressed.

The researchers are quick to point out that this doesn’t mean that just being married automatically provides these health benefits. People in stressful, unhappy marriages may be worse off than a single person who is surrounded by supportive and caring friends, family and loved ones. However, when considered in the context of other research and commonly held beliefs that women are generally more health consciousness, this research on the benefits of marriage adds an additional voice to the influence exerted between partners, what the scientists call concordance — common behavioral traits exhibited by couples.

Summing up the science, psychologist Maryann Troiani, offers this thought: "People in healthy relationships really do take care of each other, and they may even feel more of an obligation to take care of themselves, too."

Making your move

Are you the one in the relationship looking to live healthy and lobbying to engage your partner? Perhaps your spouse has posed the question to you? Is your proposed partner a friend or someone outside of your romantic zone? Regardless of where you find yourself, it is important to consider the mutuality of the undertaking. Balancing your needs and idiosyncratic tendencies with those of your partner is fundamental for success.

Use the following expert-recommended steps to guide you and your partner to a common approach for behavior change.

• Check your expectations: Instead of trying to force your partner to do your favorite workouts, help him or her find something that better fits their interests. 

• Respect your partner: You can offer to help your partner set goals and come up with a plan to achieve them. But keep in mind that your partner will only make changes that he or she is ready to make. And no matter how much your partner's choices bother you; pestering won't make it better.

• Focus on the benefits: Help your partner learn to love healthy living by focusing on its benefits instead of tracking weight loss or treadmill miles — like having more energy or sleeping more soundly. Even better, show your partner how much fun you have working out and cooking nice meals.

The science is clear. Partnerships can be an effective tool for adopting and sustaining a healthy lifestyle. There is built-in accountability, support and motivation. Men and women can certainly benefit, but there is evidence to believe that men could benefit more. I've seen it work for me. Try it. You'll do better together.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website 

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