Happy relationships may help you keep fit

Elderly couple5 October 2012

Stable, nurturing relationships may help you stay fit and healthy, according to new ESRC-funded research. The study found that being in supportive relationships with low levels of conflicts and stress may help some individuals keep slim and physically active. Conversely, poor relationships with one’s nearest and dearest can increase the risk of weight gain.

The findings support current scientific thinking, which is that recent increases in obesity rates cannot be explained by genetics alone, as social factors are the drivers of health and health inequality.

The researchers from the University of Nottingham looked at the effect of close relationships and social groups on health factors such as levels of physical activity, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference in middle and old age. They found that people with high-stress relationships were more likely to gain weight, as measured by an increase in their BMI and waist circumference. At the same time, people who felt they could rely on their partners for emotional and practical support were more likely to maintain the recommended level of physical activity over time.

According to Dr Anne Kouvonen, the lead researcher of the study, there are many reasons why this could be the case.

“Being in a stable, nurturing relationship has a positive effect on mental health, and if you feel happier and have a greater sense of wellbeing you may be more likely to be physically active,” she says.

“In addition, if you are in a relationship where you receive high levels of practical support, for example if you share childcare responsibilities and household chores, you will have more time to spend exercising.”

When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle in middle and old age, social relationships with friends as well as partners become increasingly important. The research showed that social participation in education, arts groups and evening classes was associated with maintaining a recommended waist circumference in older men.

One explanation for this is that taking part in social networks, groups and associations may help in maintaining a healthy weight by favourably influencing behavioural choices, coping resources and even the functioning of biological regulatory systems.

However this effect was not found in women, and participation in social groups did not help men lose weight if they had a larger than recommended waist circumference.

The findings of this study will hopefully feed into health promotion programmes, by highlighting the importance of an individual’s social relationships in promoting health as well as happiness. However future research is needed to investigate whether interventions designed to improve social relationships could decrease obesity risk.

In any case the research couldn’t come at a better time, as 24 per cent of the UK population is now classed as clinically obese, and England has the highest prevalence of obesity in the European Union. Obesity is a major public health concern because it is associated with numerous ill health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and certain forms of cancer.