When you and your partner started dating, he probably didn’t eat Ben & Jerry’s out of the container, and you probably didn’t fall asleep with the TV on. Surely, there was no conscious effort to take on each other’s bad habits, but over time, you simply rubbed off on each other. Luckily, you may be able to rely upon each other to exchange some of your less-than-stellar habits for healthier practices. That’s because there may be safety in numbers: Studies have shown that a partner’s support may be helpful when trying to ingrain new behaviors.
“If you want to improve your behavior, whether it’s quitting smoking, taking up running, or losing weight, buddying up with a friend or family member might help you to improve your chances of success,” says Sarah Jackson, PhD, a senior research fellow in the behavioral science and health research department at University College London.
Here’s how and why it may work for you:
Meeting goals together
When one person makes a healthy lifestyle change—like becoming more physically active, losing weight, or quitting smoking—his or her partner is significantly more likely to adopt the same healthy lifestyle change, according to a study about married and cohabiting couples which was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
People who implemented these healthy lifestyle changes during the study had a more pronounced effect on their partners than people who had always practiced healthy behaviors, such as never smoking or always exercising. “I think that the most likely explanation is that changing together makes the change easier, providing social support, encouragement, the opportunity to share problems and challenges, and maybe even a little bit of competition,” says Jackson, one of the study authors.
When you’re trying to walk more or snack less and your partner has the same goal that you do, cheering on your partner—and helping to ensure his or her success—may make it more likely that you’ll succeed, because your partner may be more likely to return the favor.
Being on the same page
Jackson’s study didn’t determine whether it’s better for couples to decide to make healthy lifestyle changes together or for one to follow the other’s example. But other research has shown that it’s helpful when both people are ready to make changes together.
Researchers at Purdue University found that married couples feel more confident about their own ability to make healthy lifestyle changes—like becoming more physically active, losing weight, or eating a more nutritious diet—when their partners are also ready to adopt the same healthy lifestyle changes.
If you’re thinking about losing weight or increasing your daily step count, have a conversation with your partner before you begin to see if your partner wants to take on the goal with you. The conversation itself may inspire your partner to get on board.
Having a similar body clock
If you’ve been staying up too late and you decide that getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night isn’t cutting it anymore, you may be more successful at getting more rest each night if you choose to adopt an earlier bedtime along with your partner. But when you’re trying to establish new sleep habits, make sure that you both share the same chronotype—the internal biological clock which makes some people early birds and others night owls.
“If one partner is an early bird and the other a night owl, even if they are staying up too late, both going to bed earlier and at the same time will probably only be good for the early bird and not the night owl,” says clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
When two night owls vote for an earlier bedtime together, you’re more likely to encourage each other to go to sleep, instead of one of you enticing the other to continue binge-watching Netflix.
An identical bedtime isn’t ideal for every couple, even if both are night owls, Breus says. One person may snore loudly, making it harder for the other to fall asleep. One of you may only need 7 hours’ rest while the other needs 8 hours. Even if you don’t get into bed at the same moment, supporting your shared goal for more sleep may help you succeed.
Change takes time
It’s important to realize that you won’t automatically succeed simply because you decide that you want to start eating healthier, walking more, or going to bed earlier. It may take more than two months for a new habit that you’re hoping to adopt to become automatic, according to research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
Some people become discouraged and give up before they incorporate a new, desired behavior into their daily routines. But you and your partner may be able to help to keep each other motivated until a new healthy habit becomes second-nature.
It may help if you both spell out exactly what you hope to accomplish, such as being in bed by 11 PM or going for a 30-minute walk together after dinner every night. “Otherwise, the other person will never know the rules,” Breus says.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.