It’s still early in 2014, but for many of us there has already been enough time for our New Year’s resolutions to weaken. The threat is especially great for those of us whose resolutions involve losing or maintaining our weight. After weeks of holiday feasting, resisting temptation seemed possible, even refreshing. After a relaxing holiday break, getting to the gym more often seemed like a noble goal. But it only takes a few days before our usual habits call to us again, and it can be daunting to imagine the rest of the year resisting the call of the couch, the siren song of sugary snacks.
The formula for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is actually pretty simple. Most of us would benefit from cutting back on carbs, salt, and sugary drinks, eating more fruits and vegetables, and burning more calories. But national statistics suggest that simply knowing that we have to eat right and move more does not solve the problem.
Diet programs don’t work very well. Exercise plans fall by the wayside. And willpower? In a battle with convenient but unhealthy fast-food options, or with the delicious but empty calories we find in so many of our snacks, willpower barely stands a chance. So where else can we turn? How can we make the “eat right, move more” formula work for us, and really stick?
The answer, as scientists are discovering in laboratories around the country, lies in our social connections. People in relationships are surprisingly similar to one another in their overall health—far more similar than two strangers—and when one person makes an active effort to be healthier, the partner often improves as well. Of course, the indicators of good health (triglyceride levels, LDL cholesterol, BMI and blood pressure, to name a few big ones) are located inside our bodies. But all of those indicators, and so many of our health-related habits and decisions, are the product of the relationships that we share with those closest to us.
In our laboratory at UCLA, we have observed hundreds of generally healthy, generally happy married couples as they discuss the changes they want to make to their health habits. Some of these couples are masterful at teaming up and moving forward, but far more struggle to connect and get traction in these conversations. They simply don’t know the best ways to motivate or inspire a partner to become healthier.
By studying hundreds of hours of videotape of these couples, we have identified a number of specific tips and strategies that can be effective in jump-starting healthier habits in close relationships. If you see that your partner is struggling to become healthier, you have some excellent options–including ones that allow you to go under the radar and bypass your partner’s natural resistance to advice or change. Without much effort at all, you can:
Model healthy behaviors. If you make a change, your partner may be inspired to follow.
Set up an environment that makes healthy choices easy and accessible. Shop for healthy foods, and leave them within easy reach.
Exploit the power of small changes. Across the year, little things (like switching to low-fat milk) can make a big difference.
Ask what your partner needs from you. Then listen to the answer, and offer it.
Reward good behavior. Pair healthy habits (like riding a stationary bike) with activities your partner already enjoys (like watching TV).
Unite around your shared goals for health. In the long-term, both of you want to grow old and healthy together, so join your partner in keeping your eyes on that prize.
And if you are the one who is struggling? When you need some support to get on a healthier path, but have a partner who is not yet on board with your efforts, our work again shows that many simple but potent possibilities are within your reach. For example, you can:
Help your partner understand how his or her behaviors affect your ability to make healthy choices.
Let your partner know the kind of support you need most.
Rather than demand support, extend an invitation to be healthy together.
Recognize how your desire to change might cause your partner concern.
Express appreciation for the support you do receive.
So this year, forget the diet. Instead, begin a conversation with your partner about your collective health, and find ways every day to help your partner become the healthiest person he or she can be.