“Marriage is sort of like a life preserver or a seat belt,” University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, Ph.D., author of The Case for Marriage, told The New York Times. “We can put it in exactly the same category as eating a good diet, getting exercise, and not smoking.”
Truth is, marriage helps health most when couples imitate each other’s healthy habits. When Brigham Young University researchers checked up on 4,746 married couples ages 51 to 61, they found that couples mirror each other’s health status: A man in his early 50s in excellent health had a very low chance of having a wife in fair or poor health. But if the man’s health was poorer, the chance of his wife being in fair or poor health increased. Why? Couples live in the same environments when it comes to food, exercise, and stress reduction. They also share emotional stresses.
Healthy living is a win-win choice for married couples. You not only improve your individual health and longevity, you also create wonderful opportunities to do things together. Plus, Reunion stage couples have the extra time, energy, and motivation to bolster their physical and mental health to prevent problems down the road.
Here’s how to use your relationship to give your physical well-being a big boost:
1. Work Out Together
Kimberly and Gary Jordan of Spartanburg, South Carolina, find time for a daily three-mile walk in their neighborhood. They unwind, catch up with each other, and burn nearly 300 calories each per outing. “It’s such a blessing, having time to talk and walk together outdoors and unwind,” Kimberly says. Another often-overlooked couple’s workout you shouldn’t miss: Sex. Making love gets the heart pumping and burns about 50 calories (hey, it’s not a marathon, but it will burn off an Oreo!). But that’s not all. Fun in bed triggers the release of feel-good endorphins, natural opiates, and the cuddle hormone oxytocin. It increases blood flow to the brain, boosts immunity (according to some studies), and improves mental health.
2. Lose Weight Together
Ed and Sylvia Robertson recently completed a year’s membership in Weight Watchers and shed a combined 112 pounds. “One of the goals we kept setting for ourselves was better health and more exercise, but we just kept flopping at it,” Sylvia says. “We needed a program we could do together. We were also concerned about prediabetes.” Adds Ed, “We’ve had that gradual middle-aged creep. Now, we’re skinny again! I went from a size 49 waist to a 32! We said to ourselves that our health is important, that our bodies are worth all this effort to eat right and get more exercise.”
3. Eat Like a Woman
Men reap nutritional benefits when they marry, while women’s diets slide after they say “I do,” concluded a recent review of 23 studies on the health consequences of coupledom. “A man’s diet tends to become healthier when he starts cohabiting with a female partner, and her influence has a long-term positive impact. In contrast, women eat more unhealthy foods and tend to put on weight when they move in with a male partner,” says lead researcher Amelia Lake, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Newcastle University’s Human Nutrition Research Centre in Great Britain. One Australian study of 3,000 couples found that men ate more fat, salt, and sugar before moving in with a partner and less afterward – as women took over more of the grocery shopping and food prep. Meanwhile, women’s intakes of fat and calories went up, as did their weights. Other research cited by Dr. Lake has found that by her 10th anniversary, a married woman is likely to have put on 19 pounds. Bottom line? Women: Follow your healthy food instincts. Men: Follow her lead.
4. Exercise Like a Man
A new University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences study of 3,075 women and men ages 70 to 79 found that highly active men were three times more likely to have highly active wives. If your guy golfs, plays tennis, runs, walks, is in a basketball league, or enjoys other physical activities, go along. Play or participate if you can, or use the time to follow your own exercise routine.
5. Argue Amicably — Or Practice More Stress Reduction
A growing stack of research links unhappy marriages with unfortunate health consequences. A study of 105 middle-aged British civil service workers found that women and men with more marital worries had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as higher levels of stress and high blood pressure – factors that raise risk for heart attack and stroke. Marital tensions have also been connected with depression, slower wound healing, more gum disease, and higher risk for stomach ulcers.
6. Take a Vacation
University of Pittsburgh psychiatry researchers who tracked the health of 12,000 men with heart problems for nine years found that guys who took annual vacations had a lower risk of death than those who skipped these much-needed breaks. Vacations may protect health by cutting stress, by putting you in a relaxing setting with family and friends, and by giving you an opportunity to get more exercise.
7. Take Responsibility for Your Health
Traditionally, a stay-at-home wife guarded marital health by cooking healthy meals and planning stress-relieving, mood-boosting activities. She probably also nagged her guy to eat his broccoli, go to bed earlier, get more sleep, and take his vitamins. An intriguing University of Chicago study found that in two-career couples, a husband’s odds for good health drop 25 percent if his wife works full-time. The moral? Husbands and wives should take charge of their health, notes lead study author Ross Stolzenberg, Ph.D. Working as a team yields better results than designating one partner as head coach and nag.
8. Learn All You Can
Healthy living can seem like a moving target: One day fat’s all bad; the next, it’s a miracle weight-loss food. One day, walking fast is all the rage; the next, a slow routine is touted by yet another expert as the best way to burn fat. What’s right? The answer: It usually doesn’t matter. The basics of healthy living are undeniable: getting up and moving most days for 30 minutes or more; eating modest portions at meals; choosing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat as your primary foods; having a positive attitude; getting a good night’s sleep; taking a multivitamin. This is simple, proven wisdom that alone can transform your health. That said, there’s value to following the health news. New research can help identify legitimately powerful new remedies and preventive measures. And great health writing is less about science and facts and more about motivating you to take action – and we can all use as much motivation as possible! But keeping up with health trends and breakthroughs takes a team.