The best way to keep your relationship going strong in midlife is to keep you and your partner healthy. Although many people think about a healthy lifestyle in terms of benefiting their own bodies and minds, they may not realize just how much they can do to benefit their partners', and vice versa. Every time you decide to buy and cook healthy meal options to add years to your life, you'll also be adding years to the life of the partner for whom you cook.
In an important new study of healthy habits in couples, University College of London epidemiologist Sarah Jackson led a team of investigators (2015) from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing to gain an understanding of the role of partner behavior in influencing an individual's adoption of healthy habits.
Jackson and her collaborators asked 3,700 married and cohabiting participants in their 50s and 60s to record their smoking and exercise habits over the course of a two-year period. Weighing in every so often, the participants also provided Body Mass Index (BMI) data to allow the researchers to relate health behaviors to measurable physical changes.
The study's key question was whether having a spouse who engaged in unhealthy behavior, or whose weight was unhealthy, would improve when the partner did. In fact, the results supported what we might call the "healthy partner hypothesis." Approximately half of the smokers quit smoking when their partners did, two-thirds became physically more active, and one-third of the overweight women (but only one-quarter of the men) lost weight.
Although other studies have demonstrated this benefit, the Jackson and team provided a new angle in showing that the "converted" partners -- those who newly adopted healthy habits -- not only became healthier but also lost weight.
What do these findings mean for you? First of all, if you're the health-conscious member of the couple, you've got ammunition you can use to bolster your arguments with a partner who prefers Coke to kale. By introducing newer healthy foods into your diet, your partner's shape will begin to transform along with your own. More importantly, both of you will see benefits to your heart health. Second, when it comes to smoking, knowing that your own determination to quit can also help your partner make the same decision, the air in your home will become cleaner just as do your lungs.
If you're the one whose partner has initiated those changes, stop complaining and instead see what happens when you decide to get onto the healthy bandwagon. Don't whine when those new greener and leaner foods show up on your plate instead of the fatty starchy fare you've come to crave. Not only will this make life easier for your partner, but it will also start to bring its own advantages to you.
You can also benefit from finding ways to develop exercise habits that both of you can enjoy. Explore alternatives that suit both of your interests, abilities, and health needs. There are enough choices among healthy lifestyle changes that you should be able to identify at least one or two that both of you can enjoy together. You don't have to spend every exercise session together, but if you choose, say, 20-minute joint walks to augment your sessions in the gym or yoga studio, you'll give yourself some new opportunities for companionship as an additional boost.
When it comes to making healthy lifestyle changes in midlife, the moral of the story is that it truly takes two.
Jackson SE, Steptoe A, Wardle J. The Influence of Partner's Behavior on Health Behavior Change: The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. JAMA Intern Med. Published online January 19, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.7554.