‘I Didn’t Realize the Toll That Poor Physical Fitness Took on My Marriage’

If we build better overall health practices, our relationships can get that much stronger, too — and it's far easier than we think

My wife and I didn’t talk about physical fitness in our marriage for many years. Like many adults, I added pounds to my waistline as I aged. I’ve since taken those pounds off, but for a few years I was 30 pounds over the recommended weight for my height.

My wife never commented on my fat. She did comment on her “flab,” but she wasn’t fat. Even after giving birth to our children, she amazed me with how quickly she dropped to her pre-pregnancy weight.

It seemed odd to me that my wife frequently remarked on her imaginary need to slim down, while seeming to overlook my own need for improved physical fitness.

My wife’s tendency to focus on her appearance rather than mine might have been subconsciously driven. Many behavioral scientists believe human behavior is primarily motivated by a drive to survive. The tendency of women, more than men, to attend to their appearance is a case in point. For thousands of years, women who partner with a man have had the highest probability of passing their genes on to a new generation. Because men, more than women, tend to seek out mates based on physical beauty, physical beauty increases a woman’s odds of winning and keeping a mate.

Consider these facts: Women nearly double their annual average spending on clothes from age 20 into their 40s. That is according to a study by Goldman Sachs. After they marry, men decrease their annual average spending on clothes by more than 25 percent, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey.

So why do married men pay less attention to their physical appearance after marriage? Many behavioral scientists would say it is because women tend to place higher value on a man’s ability to raise their social status and provide the resources needed to raise a family. This could explain why wealthy men who might otherwise go unnoticed for their physical appearance often get hitched with very attractive women.

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Then what implications do physical fitness have for a satisfying marriage?

After all, according to the latest statistics from the National Institutes of Health, two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. Putting on extra pounds brings with it risks for severe health issues like heart disease and diabetes.

In a study published by The Journals of Gerontology, researchers Adena Galinsky and Linda Waite studied data from 732 married couples. They discovered that a person’s physical health does weigh heavily on marital satisfaction. Husbands and wives who assessed their personal health to be poor were more likely to give a low rating to the quality of their marriage. Spouses who assessed their personal health to be excellent rated their marital satisfaction high.

Related: Be Happier in Your Marriage

Poor physical health takes a toll on the individual and the marriage, including limiting one’s ability to participate in physical activities with his or her spouse, and lowering libido and sexual activity. Sexual activity also declines with the loss of feeling comfortable with one’s body and decreases physical attractiveness.

I didn’t realize the toll poor physical fitness was taking on my marriage. It’s not unusual for one or both spouses to be in the dark about how poor health is putting a damper on their marital satisfaction. It’s not an easy topic to discuss. Bringing it up can stir up heated arguments and feelings of helplessness. My wife and I didn’t talk about my health. It seemed easier to push the issue aside and deny a problem existed.

In many marriages, this is the elephant in the room that needs to be discussed.

Only after my doctor offered me medication for high cholesterol and I discovered I was on the verge of becoming a Type 2 diabetic did I take action to improve my health. After my health and fitness improved, I realized what I’d been missing. My energy level increased, libido and sexual activity increased, and marital satisfaction improved.

Marital satisfaction depends on more than physical fitness and good health, but in many marriages, it is an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed.

If physical fitness is an issue that needs to be talked through in your relationship, consider adopting these guidelines:

1.) Avoid criticism and defensiveness. Don’t point fingers or blame. It only makes the other person want to fight back, shut down or run away. The discussion gets personal — and the real issues don’t get discussed.

2.) Approach the issue as a team. Share with each other what your dreams are for your relationship. Discuss how physical fitness and health issues are hindering you as a couple from achieving the dreams you have for your marriage. Describe to each other what your marriage could be like if you both achieved your optimal physical fitness.

3.) Set measurable goals together. Identify and agree on physical fitness and health goals you can work on together. Use data to measure your progress, such as pounds lost, or improvements in cholesterol and blood sugar numbers. Agree on how you will support each other toward those goals. Remember that true love inspires, it doesn’t require. Put your effort into inspiring each other to make progress. Stay away from setting up requirements for each other.

4.) Celebrate accomplishments. There will be bumps in the road and times that progress slips. Don’t give much attention to these — or they will become your focus. As you make progress on your goals, celebrate your wins together by doing fun things your improved health will make more enjoyable.

Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”

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