Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

5 Reasons Why Couples Who Sweat Together, Stay Together

Research finds surprising benefits from exercising together.

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Every day, across the country, individuals are hitting health clubs, unrolling yoga mats, pounding the pavement, and signing on to new fitness challenges. 

Maybe they shouldn't be doing it alone.

It’s time you considered how physical fitness can benefit not only your own health and well-being, but that your romantic relationship. Why not grab your partner’s hand and invite him or her to be your workout partner as well? A growing body of evidence suggests that couples who sweat together really do stay together. In fact, working out together can…:

  1. Increase your happiness with your relationship. Lab studies show that after jointly participating in an exciting physical challenge or activity, couples report feeling more satisfied with their relationships and more in love with their partner (Aron, Norman, Aron, & Heyman, 2000). Exercise is a perfect example of the type of invigorating activity that can have these positive effects. It’s the physiological arousal, rather than the novelty or challenge of the activity, that drives romantic attraction (Lewandowski, & Aron, 2004). This suggests that sharing a fitness goal (such as training for a 5K or triathlon), taking regular runs together, ballroom dancing, or having a date night at the gym can boost the quality of your romantic relationship.

  2. Improve the efficiency of your workouts. A long-standing concept in social psychology is that the mere presence of someone else affects your ability to do an activity (Zajonc, 1965). Even if you already feel competent doing a particular exercise, bringing along your romantic partner may be a fantastic way to boost your energy output. Your partner’s presence will improve your speed, without you necessarily being aware of their influence (Bond & Titus, 1983). (On the other hand, if you are just beginning to learn to do burpees or manage a new elliptical machine, better to stick to trying it solo for the time being. In these cases, your partner’s presence may interfere with your ability to complete a challenging task (Zajonc, 1965). Take some time to master the exercise, then bring your partner along for a performance boost.)

  3. Make your partner fall in love with you.  Exercise induces the symptoms of physiological arousal—sweaty hands, a racing pulse, shortness of breath. These symptoms mirror, in many ways, the thrill of romantic attraction. Interestingly, people can easily mistake the two and misattribute physical arousal for romantic attraction (Dutton & Aron, 1974). Use this phenomenon to your advantage by inviting your romantic interest to workout with you. The results? A likely boost to your attractiveness in his or her eyes.

  4. Help you achieve your fitness goals. When partners care about fitness—their own and their partner’s—it becomes easier to achieve fitness goals. A recent study of heterosexual couples showed that average-weight husbands who care about fitness engage in more physical activity when their wives offer more supportive health-related comments (Skoyen, Blank, Corkery, & Butler, 2013). Sharing in the ups and downs of a daily morning walk, a tough bike ride, or a strenuous Zumba class, can provide the perfect context for such comments. One cautionary note: Don't rely too heavily (or exclusively) on your partner when it comes to your own fitness goals. "Outsourcing” the mental effort required to complete fitness goals can reduce your own effort (Fitzsimons & Finkel, 2011).

  5. Increase your emotional bond. When you work out together, you create a context in which you can coordinate your actions. For example, you might lift weights in rhythm with your partner, match your own walking or running pace with his or hers, or toss medicine balls back and forth. Such behavior creates nonverbal matching, or mimicry, which benefits you both (Stel & Vonk, 2010). Nonverbal mimicry helps people feel emotionally attuned with one another, and those who experience or engage in it tend to report greater feelings of having “bonded” with their partner. Exercising together provides an opportunity to create such connection, benefiting both your health and your relationship.

In sum, fitness can be about you, or it can be about you and your partner, so why not share this aspect of your lives, either regularly or just on occasion, and discover how doing so might give your relationship a new dimension and new life.

 

Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-284.

Bond, C. F., & Titus, L. J. (1983). Social facilitation: a meta-analysis of 241 studies. Psychological Bulletin, 94(2), 265-292.

Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517.

Fitzsimons, G. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2011). Outsourcing self-regulation. Psychological Science, 22, 369-375.

Lewandowski, G. W., & Aron, A. P. (2004). Distinguishing arousal from novelty and challenge in initial romantic attraction between strangers. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 32, 361-372.

Skoyen, J. A., Blank, E., Corkery, S. A., & Butler, E. A. (2013). The interplay of partner influence and individual values predicts daily fluctuations in eating and physical activity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 1000-1019.

Stel, M., & Vonk, R. (2010). Mimicry in social interaction: benefits for mimickers, mimickees, and their interaction. British Journal of Psychology, 101(2), 311-323.

Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274.

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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