Before jumping into working out with a partner, it’s best to consider what your goals are as a couple, says David Lacocque, a clinical and sport psychologist for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Athletic Department, who also has an independent psychotherapy practice in Madison. Extending well beyond how many miles or reps you may want to do, goal setting for couples working out together is more dynamic and involves reaching a shared understanding. “The purpose for one couple might be the enjoyment they feel being competitive with one another, in a healthy [way] – challenging each other, pushing each other, in the positive sense, being able to share in each other’s successes,” he says.
However, to make such an arrangement work requires partners to be supportive, a level of trust and willingness to be vulnerable – like, say, while struggling on a lift or run – in the presence of a partner. While these are makings of a solid relationship, not all couples are so quick to want to sweat together. Many prefer to work out solo – and, of course, it’s perfectly healthy to have some time apart. While spending time together can strengthen a relationship, working out in close quarters can also bring up underlying issues.
“In general, I would say that in a relationship where there is a theme of mistrust between the partners, I would proceed with extreme caution,” Lacocque says. “That’s not to say that it couldn’t be an activity to actually build trust. But the key here is excellent communication between the couple.”
That also means treading very lightly when one partner is more fit than the other – being encouraging, rather than coercive or critical. “The most important thing to understand is that it’s a situation that for most people is inherently vulnerable, and so there’s a heightened likelihood for people to be sensitive to criticism, to fear embarrassment, [and] maybe to compensate for that insecurity by being a little bossy or, I don’t know, self-righteous or critical,” Lacocque says. “I think that’s the most basic thing to understand is exercise is a situation in which people often feel vulnerable, and that’s where couples really tend to go in one of two directions: They feel at the end like they’ve really succeeded and trust is developed and more mutual respect is developed, or it feels humiliating or like a source of frustration and anger, and now the couple is set back in a significant way.”
So getting on the same page before hitting the pavement for a run together or doing strength training with your partner is imperative. Couples workouts needn’t be an all-or-nothing arrangement either. If you’re learning a new workout skill, for example, that would be a good time to focus your mental energy on that – learning the skill solo – rather than doing that workout with a partner, says Theresa DiDonato, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland.
Generally, though, there are potentially big benefits that can be conferred by exercising together. Research shows, for example, that when we experience psychological arousal, we may associate that with the person we’re with (even if they’re not actually the source). Just as an encouraging partner can help you persevere in difficult moments, exercising together allows you to experience things like a runner’s high while with a partner. “Your pulse is racing and you’re sweaty and you have dopamine rush – that nice reward, the endorphins – all that nice brain chemistry that’s making you feel happy,” DiDonato says. “Some of that arousal can be associated with your partner, which does nice things for a relationship.”
There are other practical advantages as well. For example, if a couple with young children has only an hour in a busy day to work out – and someone who can baby-sit – they can both use that time to get it done. What’s more, social psychology research shows the mere presence of a romantic partner may lead us to exercise harder, like improving one’s speed. That’s something DiDonato says she’s experienced when running with her husband, when both have realized they’re running faster – thinking they’re trying to keep up with the other.
Certainly, working out together can strengthen a couple’s bond; something evidenced, DiDonato points out, by research on nonverbal mimicry. “When you do something in coordination with someone, then it actually increases feelings of likeness and closeness to that person. So were you to run in tandem, there’s this nice sense of harmony physically that then can translate to feelings of harmony and connection,” she says.
And having a partner in making important lifestyle changes can provide a significant advantage over trying to go it alone. Research finds couples’ healthy and unhealthy behaviors often align – such as for quitting smoking and physical activity, two things measured in a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. “Couples are highly concordant for unhealthy behaviors, and a change in one partner’s health behavior is often associated with a change in the other partner’s behavior,” the researchers noted. That study concluded, “Men and women are more likely to make a positive health behavior change if their partner does too,” and that involving partners in interventions to change behaviors may help improve outcomes.
Just make sure you talk about what you want out of working out together – so you’re partners in fitness, not accomplices in getting out of working out. “There can be a sort of mutual, plausible deniability that occurs in partnerships,” Lee says – like if a couple decides they’re not going to work out together after a long day. “That’s the other side of the coin.” Instead, of lobbing each other excuses, experts urge, commit to being fit together.