I've always been an exerciser; I haven't always been consistent at it. When children came along, preempting my running with diaper, bath and reading time, the hard truth hit me: "Hello kids, good-bye abs." Many wives might have found it an acceptable excuse, but not mine, a former personal trainer and true believer in sweat equity.
How did Terri get me to lace up and double down on exercise? No nagging, no exercise terrorism, no warning me about spiking LDL cholesterol levels or the perils of abdominal fat. She just kept working out four days a week — going to the gym, doing Tae-Bo — and invited me to join her.
Guilt and a healthy dose of competition (I couldn't bear becoming the Pillsbury Doughboy while she remained a size 6) eventually won out. Best of all, I had an exercise buddy who was ready to hit the road with me any time.
I shouldn't have been surprised about my wife's gravitational pull on my exercise habits. A study conducted by Jody Sindelar of Yale University and Tracy Falba of Duke University confirms that husbands tend to follow in their wives footsteps in adopting healthy habits. Spouses were five to six times more likely to quit smoking or drinking, or to get a flu shot, if their spouse did so. Husbands were 50 percent more likely to exercise when their wives took the lead.
Being a caring partner in your husband's health is the best way to get men to make healthy changes," says Dr. Rick Kellerman, chair of the department of family and community medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. "Men want their spouses to be there for them, without blaming them when they don't live up to expectations."
Jane Brewster, 51, of Stamford, Conn., was that kind of model spouse. After her husband, Andrew, 52, had been diagnosed with acid reflux disease, he had to change what and when he ate — more vegetables and fruits, bigger meals at lunch and smaller ones at dinner.
"It wasn't easy for me to change my habits," says Andrew Brewster. "What made it possible was my wife preparing the foods for me and being a steady supporter." Jane made him lunch every day and changed the dinner and weekend menus, eliminating problem foods. She never ordered him to eat anything. "I just knew she cared about me getting better, and that made all the difference."
For other wives, the "just-do-it" approach does the trick. "Many wives give their husbands a smart nudge by signing them up for an exercise class or making an appointment with a nutritionist without asking first," says Dr. Mark Moyad, director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. "If the husband wants to cancel, he'll have to make the call." Guess what? They almost always wind up going.
Making a healthy change together is the most successful strategy of all. "Both of you should be on the same page," Kellerman says. "The wife shouldn't eat pizza while the husband picks away at a broccoli casserole."
Mike Edenfield's wife, Mica, 47, decided that she and her husband needed to lose weight. She ordered an exercise tape online and was met with stiff resistance from her husband. "I was a skeptic. I wanted to document our experience so I could get our money back after 90 days," says Mike, 46, of Clinton, Tenn. To the Edenfields' surprise, the exercise sessions changed their waistlines and their marriage.
Both admit they couldn't have done it without the inspiration of the other. "When either of us had a rough day at work, the other would say, 'C'mon honey, let's exercise. We can do this,'" Mike says. "Our marriage had been rocky, but spending an hour a day together reminded us why we fell in love to begin with."
Use these tips from Robert Scales, director of cardiac rehabilitation and wellness at the Mayo Clinic/Arizona to help put your spouse on the road to healthier living.
• Don't be too direct. Ask if it's OK to talk with him about losing weight, eating healthier, quitting smoking, etc. A more aggressive approach — "You've really got to start working out or you won't be around for me and the children" — will backfire.
• Use open-ended questions. Say, "Tell me your thoughts about exercise." Listen to his pros and cons.
• Reflect back his feelings. Say, "I hear you say that you're too busy to exercise because of work, but that you also know it's important to do."
• Initiate change talk. Say, "Sounds like you want to exercise if you could find some time. What do you think it would take to make that happen?"
• Be a resource. Say, "If you decide you want to exercise, let me know how I can help."