How to get your partner on board with a healthy lifestyle change

When you decide to make a commitment to your health, and your partner doesn't, it can put a strain on your relationship. Here's how to deal.
Happy man cutting tomatoes while standing with girlfriend at home
Cooking meals at home together is an easy (and non confrontational) way to get your spouse on board with healthy eating. Cavan Images / Getty Images/Cavan Images RF
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By Ronnie Koenig

We’ve all seen those happy, fit couples: they chop salad ingredients together, post complicated yoga partner poses on Instagram and are constantly comparing their daily step counts.

My husband and I aren’t that extreme when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, but in many ways, we are positively influenced by each other. If I see him heading to the gym it makes me a lot less likely to skip a workout. And if I opt for one less piece of dark chocolate for dessert, he will usually do the same.

But what happens when one half of a couple embarks on a life-changing fitness journey and the other member’s butt stays firmly glued to the couch?

According to Eliza Kingsford, licensed psychotherapist and CEO of Empowered Wellness, if not approached carefully with open lines of communication a big change like this can cause a major disconnect for a pair.

Our relationship with food and our bodies is so intertwined with the other areas of our lives, it’s nearly impossible to make big shifts in our nutrition, fitness and body image routine without it impacting nearly every part of our lives,” says Kingsford.

It’s not uncommon for the partner who’s not getting on the green smoothie train to begin questioning the relationship and mourning life as he or she knew it.

“For example, a husband would almost certainly say that he wants his wife to feel healthy, happy and more confident,” says Kingsford. “However, when shifts occur in her life in order to accomplish that, it can make him feel uncomfortable and he can begin to behave in ways he doesn’t really intend to in order to maintain the homeostasis in his life. Even if the homeostasis made his wife feel unhealthy, sad and uncomfortable, this was still the known, the norm, so it felt safe.”

Don’t force your newfound interest on your partner

When Jennifer, 45, from Washington DC (who preferred to use a pseudonym for obvious reasons, as to not publically shame her husband for his unhealthy habits), started to eat clean and joined CrossFit, her husband was forced to take a hard look at his own fitness level.

“He knows he’s about 30 pounds heavier than his comfort zone,” she says. “I encouraged him to join CrossFit with me, but he was resistant. He said he didn’t like the atmosphere as he is very introverted and there is definitely a strong community aspect to CrossFit’s success — which appeals to me, but we are different that way. When I realized that my encouragement was ineffective, I left it alone.”

Kingsford says it is a misconception that a couple needs to enjoy the same physical activities. To the contrary, “I have seen many couples have completely different ideas of what health and fitness means for them personally, but they just agree it’s important, so they implement their own individual programs accordingly,” she says. “This usually works just fine. Where I see the most struggle is when one partner fundamentally believes health and fitness is a priority and the other partner does not. This is where I see the most sabotage and destructive behavior.”

Communicate your needs — and what needs to change

Speaking of sabotage, when Ruth, 30, of Rochester, New York, (who preferred to not include her last name for anonymity) decided to lose weight, her husband was verbally encouraging, but still continued to bring her favorite snacks around.

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“It used to be, he would surprise me with treats I really enjoy all the time,” she says. “He still does this sometimes, mainly on the weekends because I tend to be a little less rigid then.”

When issues like this arrive, Kingsford says it’s important to express yourself and not just assume that your partner understands your needs. “Communication is imperative in these instances,” she says. “Does the sabotaging partner even realize he or she is doing those things? Are they possibly oblivious to how you might feel when they bring home wine and takeout every Friday night?”

Know that compromise is key

Ruth says another challenge is that her husband refuses to discontinue snacking in front of the TV at night. The result is that she often retreats to her bedroom in the evening to avoid temptation, and the two of them now spend less time together.

Ideally, getting fit and healthy can bring you closer to your partner. When you start prioritizing health, many people find themselves feeling more confident, less stressed and yes, more interested in sex. But if you’re not communicating, you might find yourself with a shrinking waistline, yet growing further apart from your partner. In this situation, compromise is key.

“Because I want to avoid post-dinner snacking, I often brush my teeth and then hang out in my bedroom after putting our daughter to bed, in hopes of being less tempted to eat,” says Ruth. “This used to be when we would sit in the living room and watch TV together. Occasionally I’ll take a night and stay down to watch a show with him and then sometimes he’ll come upstairs a little earlier to be with me.”

Reassure your partner it’s about you, not them

It’s also important to put yourself in your spouses shoes, and consider what feelings your journey may be bringing up for them. It may be that your partner feels like you’re leaving him or her behind now that you’re focused on your health and getting fit.

“Your partner may feel insecure and frightened about what your fitness and health journey will do to your relationship,” says Kingsford. “Will you suddenly want something different in a partner as you evolve on your journey? Are you leaving him or her behind?”

In between squats, reassure your partner that you’re still there for him or her.

Jennifer’s husband has now found a gym that suits him, and she reports he’s been going two to three times a week. “My biggest challenge is encouraging him without judgement,” she says. “We are now in very different places with our fitness, and I am really glad he’s making an effort, any effort, so I want to make sure that's the feedback he hears from me,” she says.

Celebrate the small wins

As for Ruth, although she still wishes her husband would exercise, she’s happy that he’s at least willing to eat the new meals she now cooks.

“One thing I’m lucky about is that he is very open to eating healthy dinners I prepare,” she says. “I’ve shifted toward more of a plant-based diet and he’s been on board with that, eating and enjoying almost everything I make. Which is kind of astonishing because when we first started dating many years ago, he was extremely picky!”

Sometimes, leading by example is the best way to get a reluctant partner on board. So instead of badgering him or her to join you for a bootcamp class, or to skip the fast food, lead by example and you may be surprised that he or she finds the inspiration to follow along.

“You do not have to make excuses for or apologize for your new lifestyle, ever!” says Kingsford. “But, allowing your partner to have feelings of discomfort and working through how you can overcome them together will not only solidify your commitment to your healthy lifestyle, but also to your relationship.”

Tips for Getting Healthy Together

  • Plan date night at home: Instead of hitting your favorite restaurant (and dodging temptations on the menu), try taking date night in and cooking a healthy dish together. My husband and I recently attended a vegetarian cooking class and it was a fun way to spend time together and learn more creative ways to eat healthy (and keep it exciting).
  • Get physical: Getting fit doesn’t have to involve the gym. Try a couples bootcamp in the park, play some beach volleyball or a game of tennis, or go out on the town dancing! Anything that gets you active together will have you both feeling great and wanting to move more.
  • Go food shopping: Okay, grocery shopping may not be your idea of a steamy date night, but it can be a great way to explore new foods and flavors together. If the shopping is usually your domain, bring your partner along and let him/her make suggestions. Look up a new recipe you can make together or find a local international foods market and try some out-of-the-ordinary products.
  • Sync your schedules: Getting on the same page with your partner can go a long way toward both of you achieving your fitness goals. For example, “If you find yourself wanting to make time to exercise at 6 a.m. four days a week, but that leaves your partner suddenly responsible for getting the kids up and ready for school, making sure you’re both on the same page will ensure that you are able to stick to your goals long-term,” says Kingsford.
  • Plan for fun indulgences: Being a fit couple doesn’t mean you have to swear off your favorite foods. Once a week, plan to enjoy a special dessert or cocktail — then take the time to really savor it and each other! Having a treat to look forward to each week will help keep you committed to your healthy lifestyle the rest of the time.

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