Many of us take the steps to shed those extra pounds because we want to live a healthier life or fit into our favorite outfit again. But could our efforts actually bring health benefits to our loved ones, too?
Finally enrolling in that weight loss program or adopting a more balanced diet is something we may want to do not just for our own sake, but for the benefit of our partners, too.
And no, that’s not just because your significant other will enjoy being with a fitter partner.
Turns out that we may be natural influencers — at least when it comes to the people we share our lives with — so that when we make more healthful choices, our partners will likely feel compelled to follow in our footsteps.
That’s what Prof. Amy Gorin and colleagues — from the University of Connecticut in Mansfield — observed following a study that they recently conducted on several couples in which one of the partners committed to a weight loss initiative.
“When one person changes their behavior, the people around them change,” notes Prof. Gorin, qualifying this tendency as a “ripple effect.”
She adds, “Whether the patient works with their healthcare provider, joins a community-based, lifestyle approach like Weight Watchers, or tries to lose weight on their own, their new healthy behaviors can benefit others in their lives.”
Prof. Gorin and team’s findings were recently published in the journal Obesity. Theirs is the first randomized controlled trial to investigate couples’ mutual influence on weight loss.
The researchers followed 130 couples — defined as partners living together — for 6 months, during which one person in each relationship followed a weight loss regime. The partners were assessed in detail twice over that period: once at 3 months and once at 6 months.
Prof. Gorin and her colleagues divided the couples into two groups. In the first group, one partner in each couple joined an organized weight loss program, with access to targeted counseling and dedicated online tools.
In the other, one partner in each couple was given a handout offering advice about healthful diets, exercise, and some strategies for weight management, such as avoiding calorie-rich foods and eating smaller portions. This “self-guided group” received no further guidance.
It was discovered that the partners who had not been directly participating in the weight loss program or given the weight management handouts had also lost weight, alongside their significant others.
This tendency was observed consistently, at both the 3-month and 6-month check-ins. Also, Prof. Gorin and team noted that partners tended to lose weight at about the same rate, and that if one struggled in their weight loss journey, so did the other.
The findings of the study — which was funded by Weight Watchers International, a popular weight management initiative — therefore suggest that there’s more to our private weight loss choices than just a desire to inhabit a healthier body.
Prof. Gorin hopes that this knowledge will push national weight loss programs and healthcare providers to take into account the “ripple effect” created by one person’s initiative.
“How we change our eating and exercise habits can affect others in both positive and negative ways. On the positive side, spouses might emulate their partner’s behaviors and join them in counting calories, weighing themselves more often, and eating lower-fat foods.”
Prof. Amy Gorin
It is not yet clear, though, if one person’s weight loss initiative can have a larger impact, influencing other household members such as children, siblings, or parents. Prof. Gorin and her team aim to address that gap in a coming study.