There's a reason why the last season of The Biggest Loser included couples; when two people meet and fall in love, they often change their eating and exercise habits, and not always for the better. My boyfriend jokes that his nickname has gone from "D-Love" to "D-Love Handles" in the 18 months that we've been dating, and I've had to be more vigilant about weight now that he's cooking dinner for me every night.
One study presented last fall at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society found that young women who were dating gained an average of 15 pounds over five years, those women who were cohabiting but not married gained 18 pounds, and the newly married gained 24 pounds. (The men saw a similar upward trend, albeit with no difference between the dating and cohabiting groups.) Meantime, according to the "obesity is contagious" study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, if one spouse becomes obese, the other is 37 percent more likely to do so, also.
What's going on? Research has shown that eating a meal with another person, no matter the relationship to you, can boost the amount of food eaten by 33 percent. Sharing an environment can clearly influence eating and exercise habits, says Penny Gordon-Larsen, a nutrition researcher at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and an author of the dating/cohabitation/marriage study. The results can be more pronounced for women, who generally don't need as many calories as men. They may start to dish out equal (read larger) servings for themselves if they're feeding a boyfriend. The effect holds for exercise, too; hopping out of bed at 5:30 a.m. for a prework spinning class may seem much less attractive if you now have a late riser sleeping next to you.
Beyond habits, being single probably also gives people an incentive to be slimmer (or, to flip it, being in an established couple leads to complacency). People tend to put on weight when they get married and lose it after a divorce, says Virginia Chang, who researches obesity at the University of Pennsylvania. This is especially true for females; however unfairly, weight affects a woman's marriage prospects and social mobility more than a man's.
So, how can you fight the creeping pudge that often accompanies a romantic relationship? Here are some tips from two health and fitness experts:
1. If an activity was important to you before you were in a relationship, it should be important once you're in the relationship. Don't ditch your weekly run with a friend or quit the office softball team just because you're coupled up, says Jim White, a nutritionist and personal trainer who is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Even if giving up your sport or activity doesn't bug you at first, it can eventually lead to resentment as well as extra pounds.
2. Make working out together part of the fun. "It doesn't have to be running or weight training—it could be ballroom dancing, a yoga class, or a bike ride in the park," says White. Try something that's new for both of you.
3. But work out by yourself sometimes, too. Unless your fitness level and goals are exactly the same as your partner's, maintaining your own program helps you keep from loafing your way through a workout or going so hard that you risk injury. (And really, who needs to be together all the time?)
4. If you've lost fitness or gained weight, talk about it with your partner. "Be honest," says Justin Price, co-owner of the BioMechanics, a personal training and wellness company, and an IDEA Health and Fitness personal training spokesperson. "Say, 'I've put on 20 pounds, I'm not going to the gym, and I have anxieties about it—any suggestions?'"
5. If it's your partner who's put on weight, don't nag. It's not likely to help. You can suggest taking a walk after dinner or cook more vegetarian meals, but keep it positive; just by making your own more healthful choices, you're likely to have an impact.
6. Make a plan, and communicate it. If you want to make an early-morning yoga class twice a week, tell your partner about your plans well before the alarm rings, then sleep in together, guilt free, the other three days of the workweek.
7. Compromise, and be flexible. If your partner likes BBQ joints and you prefer sushi, alternate restaurant picks. If you get a last-minute chance to go out for a nice (but late) evening together the day before that morning yoga class, pick up the class another day.
Join a Discussion
Since becoming part of a couple--married or otherwise--have you gained weight? If not, how have you managed to keep it off? Our friends at BettyConfidential want to know.