Spouses May Inspire Healthy Lifestyle

Husbands and Wives Are Often Each Other's Role Models for Healthy Habits

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 11, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

July 11, 2007 -- Spouses may inspire each other to adopt a healthy lifestyle, according to a new study on marriage and health.

"We find that when one spouse changes a poor health behavior, the other spouse is likely to change behavior as well," write researchers Tracy Falba, PhD, and Jody Sindelar, PhD.

So if you want your spouse to adopt some healthy habits, you might take the lead and make that change yourself.

Falba is a visiting assistant professor of economics at Duke University. Sindelar is a professor at Yale University's department of epidemiology and public health.

They studied data on more than 6,000 U.S. adults who were married (and stayed married to the same person) from 1996 to 2000.

The husbands and wives completed surveys about exercise, smoking, alcohol use, flu shots, and cholesterol screening in 1996 and 2000.

The researchers focused on husbands and wives who smoked, drank, and didn't exercise or get flu shots or cholesterol tests in 1996. The key question: Who had upgraded their health habits by 2000?

Spouse as Healthy Lifestyle Role Model

Falba and Sindelar considered many factors, including medical diagnoses that might shock husbands or wives into paying more attention to their health.

Across the board, husbands and wives tended to follow in each other's footsteps in adopting healthy habits.

Spouses were five to six times more likely to quit smoking, quit drinking, and to start getting flu shots if their spouse started doing so during the study.

Spouses were about 50% more likely to start exercising and about 80% more likely to get a cholesterol test if their spouse started doing so, the study also shows.

It didn't matter who made those changes first. Husbands and wives influenced each other equally.

It's not clear if the spouses quietly inspired each other through their example, or whether they asked their spouse to join them in their new healthy habits.

For instance, a wife who quit smoking might get rid of the ashtrays in the house and ask her husband not to smoke around her. Or a husband might inspire his wife to exercise by starting his own fitness program.

"Family members, especially spouses, have important impacts on each other, and we have shown that this influence extends to health behaviors," write Falba and Sindelar.

"Thus, attempts to change behavior may be enhanced, or thwarted, by the behavior of family members, especially spouses," the researchers add.

The study appears in the advance online edition of Health Services Research.

  • When you do something to improve your health, do you find that your spouse does, too? Share your stories on WebMD's Couples Coping Support Group message board.