One of the first things Dr. Donald Hensrud learned when he began working with patients in the area of wellness and prevention is the futility of trying to change another’s behavior.
“I realized quickly you can’t change someone else,” said Hensrud, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, Rochester, Minn. “Change is difficult for people. Some are ready; some are not.”
For example, “one of the partners in a relationship may be held back from starting a fitness program because he or she is not as ready,” he said.
That person may even be threatened by his or her partner’s interest in physical fitness, and try to undermine it.
In his work, Hensrud has seen instances where one partner gives chocolate to the other – who’s trying to lose weight – in an attempt to derail that person’s progress.
“We should be supportive of our partner’s efforts at self-improvement,” he said. “If one partner isn’t supportive, the other has to take a step back and reflect.”
Change is hard
In general, “we tend to resist change,” he said. “Our routine is safe. We like the status quo; it’s easier to do what we know, and maintain it, than to make changes – even if the changes are beneficial in many ways.”
“If we’re comfortable in our own habits, and the other person is making changes, it may be viewed not so much as making an improvement but as ‘rocking the boat.’ ”
Committing to an exercise program takes time and involves an emotional investment, Hensrud said.
“Some people may feel that it’s taking time away from the relationship,” he said. “It’s good to look at the specific reasons behind those feelings.”
Support is critical in starting and sticking with an exercise program, whether or not you exercise together as a couple, he said.
“On the flip side, the lack of support can be very detrimental.” If your partner is not supportive of your fitness goals, try to remain supportive of him or her anyway “to help them come along,” Hensrud said. “We all have different strengths and insecurities.”
He warns against adopting a “holier-than-thou” attitude, he said. And avoid taking a competitive stance.
Instead, “you might say something like, ‘Do you want to come on a walk with me? I always feel better afterward.’ Invite them and involve them to the degree that they want to be involved.”
If you are the one who’s not supportive of your partner’s fitness goals, “try to do some honest self-reflection,” Hensrud said. “You may need to look at your reasons.
“Support goes along with respect, and we need to have respect for each other’s boundaries.” As an example, he pointed to the relentless campaign that some people levy to convince their partners to quit smoking, which “always backfires.”
No matter where each of them is on the road to healthy lifestyle changes, “hopefully the couple is going in the same direction together,” he said.
Getting into an exercise program together would be a plus. “Take baby steps. Start by walking five or 10 minutes at a time, and then build up to longer walks.”
Sometimes couples “have different things that they like to do,” he said. “It’s great if it works out” that they can pursue physical fitness activities together, but even if they have different schedules and can’t exercise together, mutual support goes a long way.