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Getting healthy: Is two better than one?

by Misha Gajewski | Analysis

23 January 2015

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Ladies exercising

“I get by with a little help from my friends” goes the famous Beatles song.

Let’s be honest, the world would be a pretty daunting place if you had to face all life’s challenges by yourself.

So it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a friend, your mum, your significant other, or just a kind stranger: things become much more manageable when you have a helping hand.

This is especially true when it comes to changing our less healthy habits.

At least that’s the finding of a new study that we helped fund and which made the headlines this week. Researchers found that people were more likely to succeed in changing their health habits if their partner joined them in their efforts.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that both men and women were strongly influenced by their partner’s behaviour when it comes to health.

The Study

Scientists at University College London looked at 3,722 couples (who were either married or living together) over the age of 50 who were taking part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) – a population-based study of middle-aged and older adults in the UK.

The researchers measured changes in three areas of health behaviour, looking at differences across two years for smoking and physical activity, and across four years for body weight.

The study found that half of those whose partners gave up smoking during the study also gave up themselves.  In comparison, fewer than one in 10 kicked the habit when their partner had continued to smoke.

When it comes to shedding the pounds, in couples where both partners were overweight, a quarter (26 per cent) of men and a third (36 per cent) of women lost weight if their significant other had lost weight too. But only one in 10 men (10 per cent) and 15 per cent of women managed to lose at least five per cent of their body weight when their partner remained as they were.

And approximately 7 out of 10 men and women (70 per cent) kept physically active when their partner also got in shape – compared to just a quarter keeping active if they had to go solo. So, as with a sports bra, being active is much easier if you have support.

Interestingly, although researchers saw an effect in people whose partners either didn’t smoke or were already active at the start of the study (and kept that up), it wasn’t as strong as when the partner had made a change to be healthier.

This suggests that it isn’t just people becoming more like their partner – there was something special about making a change. One reason the authors suggest is that couples could make a decision to change together. Or one partner’s healthy success could spur the other on to give it a go. It may also be easier to stick to something and make it into a habit if your partner is on board.


This study suggests that having someone close to you who’s trying to make a similar change – or has already succeeded – can make a big difference to achieving your goals.

This study looked at romantic partners, but there are plenty of other options. You can team up with a flatmate, your best friend, or a work colleague. The important thing is that you both have support.

According to Dr Julie Sharp, our head of health information: “Getting some support can help people take up good habits.”

“For example if you want to lose weight and have a friend or colleague who’s trying to do the same thing you could encourage each other by joining up for a run or a swim at lunchtime or after work. And local support, such as the NHS stop smoking services, are very effective at helping people to quit.”

Although a healthy lifestyle can’t guarantee that you won’t develop cancer, it’s a really important way for you to stack the odds in your favour.

In fact, at the end of last year we found that lifestyle factors contributed to more than 600,000 preventable cases of cancer in the past five years. And making a change on many of these fronts, including being a non-smoker, having a healthy weight, drinking less alcohol, being active and eating a healthy balanced diet can also help cut your risk of other health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

So even if you and your chosen partner pick just one of those to tackle this year, you’re already moving in the right direction.

– Misha