Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

Couples that Sweat Together, Stay Together

Working out with your partner is good for you and your relationship.

Goal setters everywhere are joining health clubs, dusting off their yoga mats, and hitting the streets, taking on new workout programs and new fitness challenges. In celebration of these efforts, it’s time to consider how physical fitness can benefit not only you, but your romantic relationship. In particular, why not grab your partner’s hand and invite him or her to be your occasional (or regular!) workout buddy? A growing body of evidence suggests that couples who sweat together, stay together.

Need to be convinced? Check out the following research-based explanations for how couples who share in each other’s fitness efforts bring new life to their relationships and new energy to their workouts. 

Working out together can….

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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 an activity, that drives romantic attraction (Lewandowski, & Aron, 2004). This suggests that sharing a fitness goal (such as training for a 5K or a 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 idea in social psychology is that the mere presence of someone else affects your ability to do an activity (Zajonc, 1965). For the workout-savvy, i.e., people who 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). However, if you are just beginning to learn the art of the burpee or how to operate that fancy elliptical machine, better to workout solo. Your partner’s presence may interfere with your ability to complete this type of 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). You can use this to your advantage by inviting your romantic interest to workout with you. The results? A likely boost to your attractiveness in the eyes of your partner.                   

4.  Help you achieve your fitness goalsWhen partners care about fitness, their own and their partner’s, they make it 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 an everyday morning walk, a tough bike ride, or a wild Zumba class, can provide the perfect context for such comments. One cautionary note: be sure not to rely too heavily on your partner when it comes to your own fitness goals. Such “outsourcing” of the mental effort required to complete fitness goals can reduce your own effort towards achieving those goals (Fitzsimons & Finkel, 2011).

5. Increase your emotional bond with your partner. 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 your partner’s, or toss medicine balls back and forth. Such behavior creates nonverbal matching, or mimicry, which benefits both you and your partner (Stel & Vonk, 2010). Nonverbal mimicry helps people feel emotionally attuned with one another, and those who experience or engage in mimicry tend to report greater feelings of having “bonded” with their partner. Exercising together provides a nice chance to create connection, benefiting both your health and your romantic relationship.

In sum, fitness can be about you, or it can be about you and your partner, and why not share this aspect of your lives, either regularly or just on occasion, and see 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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