Changing bad habits into good ones can be quite a challenge, but having a partner that does the same goes a long way. A new study has found that if your partner works out and quits smoking, then you are much more likely to do the same thing.

Encouragement and support go a long way – and collaborating in a team is one of the main characteristics of our species, so it’s only normal that teaming up makes things easier. Researchers at the University College London found that both men and women worked out more if their partners joined them, and the same thing goes for losing weight.

Couples jogging. Image via Live Super Foods.

Researchers turned to the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and examined the smoking habits, workout patterns and weight loss of 3,722 married and cohabiting English couples over 50 years old. The figures are striking – only 8% of those partnered with smokers quit smoking, but that number jumped to 50% when the partner also quit. A similar pattern emerged for physical activity, with a whopping 70 percent of people exercising when their partner did the same!

When it came to actually losing weight, the figures weren’t so spectacular, though they were still highly relevant. Researchers looked at how many people lost 5% of their body weight – a significant figure. They found that a quarter of all men lost weight when their partners did the same, with only 10% doing it alone. For women, those figures were 36% and 15% respectively.

It’s not clear yet why this happens, and this was not the purpose of the study.

“Of course we weren’t studying ‘why,’ only ‘whether’, but I would speculate that social support and sharing the problem would be good,” Jane Wardle of University College London said. “Maybe there might also be an element of competition.”

What was very interesting is that the patterns weren’t so strong when people got involved with already healthier people – it worked much better when both partners were working to solve problems.

“The partner merely being slim didn’t seem to promote change,” said Wardle. “Perhaps couples can more easily ignore (or accept) differences in weight without feeling any pressure to change; perhaps weight differences aren’t as readily expressed as visible differences in food intake.”

Wardle also mentioned that the same trends probably continue to same sex relationships and marriages, but the numbers they had available for this statistic was to small to have any meaning.

The study also indicates that if one of the partners needs to lose weight and quit smoking, his partner can directly help him by doing the same.

“I would certainly recommend doctors to enquire if their patient’s partner ought to be quitting smoking, getting more active, or losing some weight, and if so talk to the patient about whether the two of them might take the change up together,” she said.

Journal Reference: Sarah E. Jackson, PhD; Andrew Steptoe, DSc; Jane Wardle, PhD. The Influence of Partner’s Behavior on Health Behavior Change. JAMA Intern Med. Published online January 19, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.7554