Lee Shoag is the kind of husband who tells his wife he loves her wrinkles.
Barbara Shoag says her husband’s excess pounds mean she has more of him to hug.
But when the Reform Jews from Long Beach, both 74, took a whitewater rafting trip several years ago and found themselves easily losing their breath, the couple agreed they both needed to improve their cardiovascular health.
So, at 6 a.m. most mornings of the week, the Shoags head down to Long Beach’s Alpert Jewish Community Center to work out. Barbara, who prefers guided instruction, takes a spin or Pilates class. Lee, a more independent exerciser, uses the elliptical machine and weights. But no matter what type of exercise they each end up doing, the Shoags always make their trips to the gym a joint affair.
“We’ve been married going on 50 years, and we like doing things together,” Lee explained. “It’s more motivating to have each other.”
When it comes to making healthy lifestyle changes, the Shoags have it right. Couples who support each other when it comes to working out, eating right and following the doctor’s orders tend to enjoy significantly greater success in getting and staying healthy than people who embark on such efforts alone, research shows. That’s especially true for people over 50, who typically face greater health challenges as they age and may be more reliant upon each other than in their younger years, experts say.
Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at UCLA, has studied the issue in depth. He said couples can’t help but affect each other when one partner decides to make a lifestyle change, or is ordered to do so by a doctor. How the supporting partner chooses to respond — or not respond — to his or her loved one’s desire for change is critical to the other’s ultimate success, Karney indicated.
“What I eat at a table, how much I eat, is powerfully affected by how much the people around me are eating, especially my intimate partner,” said Karney, a secular Jew who lives in Santa Clarita. “What I have to eat in my kitchen is powerfully affected by what my partner shops for when my partner goes to the market. Whether I have time to go to the gym depends on how much my partner is willing to do at home while I’m at the gym.”
These issues and more are addressed in an upcoming book titled “Love Me Slender: How Smart Couples Team Up to Lose Weight, Exercise More, and Stay Healthy Together,” to be released Feb. 4 by Karney and Thomas Bradbury, co-directors at the UCLA Relationship Institute. It outlines several ways partners can help each other implement lifestyle changes. These include creating an environment that is conducive to maintaining a healthy change without resorting to nagging or criticism. For example, if a better diet is the goal, the supporting partner can buy healthier food and avoid leaving junk food where the spouse might see it. If the goal is improved fitness, one could start going to the gym and invite the partner along, Karney said.
Cindi Massengale, fitness and wellness manager at the Alpert Jewish Community Center, said she encourages people who are making lifestyle changes to try and get their partner on board. That doesn’t mean couples have to do the same activities as each other — everybody has different preferences and abilities — but they can be supportive by accompanying their partner in some way, she said. Massengale said she sees many couples like the Shoags who go to the community center together, but one will work out in the gym while the other goes to the library or takes a class.
“If they’re coming together, they’re more accountable to each other and keeping each other on track,” Massengale said. “Just getting out of the house can be the hardest part.”
One area where couples tend to make mistakes when it comes to healthy lifestyle changes is in communication, Karney said. Conversations about weight, body image and fitness can become very emotional. A spouse might interpret his or her partner’s desire to do more exercise as a criticism of their lifestyle together or might fear their partner wants to lose weight to impress somebody else. It’s important couples take time to understand each other’s perspective and unite around making a change, Karney said. This understanding approach can also be helpful when a partner is struggling to improve habits or follow the doctor’s orders.
“When you’re tempted to offer a criticism or a critique, or make a demand, try asking a question instead,” Karney said. “You might ask, ‘What makes it hard for you?’ You might ask, ‘What are your goals?’ There’s a lot of strength in being heard. … It’s a way to show your understanding, and it’s often a good beginning for making a change.”
Couples can also remind each other of why health changes are important by focusing on a vision of a long-term future together, the professor said. It’s easier to make short-term sacrifices, such as resisting a piece of chocolate cake, when you remember that you’re investing in a happy future with the person you love, Karney said.
Of course, support can come from someone other than a spouse. A six-week healthy living program for seniors run by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles encourages participants to team up with a “buddy.” That could be a spouse, or another course participant, a friend or a caregiver. Participants set weekly goals for themselves to improve their health, and the buddy reminds the person of their goals, makes sure they’re on track and celebrates with them when goals are achieved, said Monica Dunahee, manager of senior adult education, health and wellness.
“As you become older, its going to be harder to get fit, to eat right,” Dunahee said. “You need someone in your corner, someone to be accountable to and to celebrate with you.”