Should I push my unhealthy partner?

Author: Hayley Alexander

… for better, for worse.


…for richer, for poorer.


…in sickness and in health.


Reading between the lines, these vows seem to imply we are meant to accept our chosen life partner as they are, even if they falter toward being less in shape than we might prefer. Yet, for someone committed to a life journey of health, fitness and wellness who works hard to maintain this lifestyle, living with a person who is not as enthusiastic might be frustrating, and may even have long term consequences for the relationship. 


To be fair 


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “not getting enough physical activity can lead to heart disease, even for people who have no other risk factors. It can also increase the likelihood of developing other heart disease risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.


It’s a reasonable argument to say that if your intention is ’til death do us part, not exercising and eating right may get you there faster than intended. Indeed, being angry with a partner that seems unmotivated to be healthy might seem warranted. But that won’t help solve the problem… 


Working it out


Daniel Butler, a Johannesburg based life coach and personal trainer, says that from his experience in training couples who come for sessions together, it’s often the case that one of them does not want to be there, or has clearly been dragged along. However, “it’s the fact that they are making the effort to be there that counts,” he asserts. 


To help motivate a fitness disinterested partner into getting active, Butler says he finds that “asking for the minimum effort from that person and not pushing them too hard works best, as you don’t want to scare them off.” Also, “thank your partner for their efforts, and tell them how much you appreciate them getting into the [fitness] zone,” he says.


Positive reinforcement in action


Validating Butler’s approach, Courtney Ackerman, a psychologist and researcher, discusses how to motivate behaviour change using “positive reinforcement” in an article for Positive Psychology.


She defines positive reinforcement as “the introduction of a desirable or pleasant stimulus after a behaviour,” i.e. offering some kind of reward or acknowledgement, so that a person feels good and is more likely to result in repeating the behaviour. 


Ackerman also stresses that “positive reinforcement is most effective when the person you are training is eager to please,” which is why you need to emphasise to your partner that what you are asking of them comes from a place of love and caring. 


At the end of the day, as the adage goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” 


Maybe there is a type of exercise that would appeal to your partner if you discussed various options with them?  And who knows, perhaps they’ll introduce you to a new way of staying in shape!




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