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Experts say couples can improve each other’s health by developing diet, exercise, and other routines together. Anchiy/Getty Images
  • Researchers say couples tend to share the same health behaviors and risk factors.
  • They say this trend could be because people tend to couple with those who have similar traits and interests.
  • Researchers add that couples can also be negative influences on each other.
  • They suggest couples work together to try to improve health factors such as diet and exercise.
  • They also say the healthcare system should take the family unit into account when assessing an individual’s health status.

Want to get a glimpse into what could be your health future?

If so, turn away from the mirror and look at your significant other.

A new study led by investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston looked at more than 5,000 couples.

The researchers reported that 79 percent fell into the “nonideal” category for cardiovascular health, unhealthy diets, and getting inadequate exercise — for both parties.

Researchers say the study results indicate that we need to look at how our medical system views and treats us.

“What motivated us (to do this study) was that we know the U.S. health system is built around the individual,” Dr. Samia Mora, MHUS, an associate physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a corresponding study author, told Healthline. “But we have very little information on the health of a domestic unit.”

The researchers studied 5,364 couples, all employees of Quest Diagnostics who submit to annual health screenings.

The researchers determined whether each individual was in the ideal, intermediate, or nonideal category for each of the American Heart Association-defined “Life’s Simple 7” (LS7) risk factors and behaviors.

The LS7 include smoking status, body mass index, physical activity, healthy diet score, total cholesterol, blood pressure, and fasting blood sugar.

The research team also gave each participant an overall cardiovascular health score. Data was collected from questionnaires, examinations, and laboratory tests.

While they expected to see some correlation within a couple, Mora said the results went beyond what they anticipated.

“We were surprised,” she said. “Four of five couples were in the nonideal group. We expected to see some shared risk factors, but it was a surprise to see that the vast majority of couples were in a nonideal category for overall cardiovascular health.”

But, she said, there was good news.

“For those who are in good health, their partner is too,” she said.

What’s behind this?

It may range from simple factors, such as you live with someone you feel comfortable with, or to more complicated factors, such as a couple’s negative influence on each other.

“People couple up for different reasons,” Mora said. “It’s that old ‘birds of a feather flock together.’”

She said things such as socioeconomic background, diet, and lifestyle choices can be part of what binds a couple.

In a way, that makes sense, said Laurie Mintz, PhD, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Florida and a licensed psychologist.

“Whether you are in a functional and happy relationship or not, this is the person you are ‘doing life with,’” Mintz told Healthline.

Particularly in the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, couples tend to eat the same and do the same, be it watching television, eating extra food, or even smoking.

The message from this study, Mintz said, may be for people to step up and be the health influencer in the couple.

Jamie Hickey knows this firsthand.

At one point, Hickey had obesity, so he decided to change his health and his life.

He slowly got fit, becoming a certified fitness trainer on the way.

Today, he’s healthy and has added to his resume the credentials NASM, FMS certified trainer, ISSA nutritionist, and founder of Truism

But the real bonus? His wife’s health improved along with his.

“I made our environment a healthy one (quitting smoking, eating whole foods more, moving and working out) and eventually, she wanted to do it too,” Hickey told Healthline.

Now they’re both nonsmokers, have better health, weigh less, and yet still savor the Italian fare his wife brings from her heritage.

“She just knows how to make it healthier now,” Hickey said.

Mora said the study points to more than the need for couples to step up for one another.

“This is a shortcoming in the healthcare system,” Mora said. “We are focusing on the one person and not the entire household, and that’s not right.”

Mora said the World Health Organization has already pointed to the need for refocusing medical care on the family unit and not just the individual.

She hopes this study helps point more in that direction.

“Particularly in the time of a pandemic (when so many are with just a few close people most times), we need to address these (health challenges) on a family level,” she said.

Mintz said there are things a person can do in the meantime to try to shift their couple unit to the positive side of that LS7 list.

The first step, she said, is to just start.

“Do it yourself, but invite them on the journey,” Mintz said. “Make a plan together. It can be as simple as a walk every night after dinner.”

Mintz said that in this time, couples might even find short-term relief by making some changes together.

“People are very stressed right now,” she said. “And what do we do when we are stressed? The shortcut is pizza, chocolate, and all that.”

“Long-term relaxation is what we want,” she added. “Food choices impact that, so make different choices, even just one at a time.

“Get some exercise. It will help you sleep better, and sleep is key to health,” she advised.

One more thing to make sure you throw in the mix? Sex.

“Throw it into your day. Have a sexual encounter,” she said. “Make out while laying on the couch, whatever you like. It will make you way happier than a piece of cake.”

And most of all, she said, think beyond your couple unit.

“Your children,” she said. “Think of them, too. Even if you think you don’t care about your own health, you care about your child, and you want to be a role model. Show them the skills you need to live a healthy life.”

Mora would like to see more studies dig deeper to look at the reach of this into the entire family unit, as well as look at socioeconomic groups within couples.

“We need to address this on a family scale,” she said.