Most of us know that stress can make us overeat and put on weight. But a new study shows that your spouse’s stress can also make you fat.1
University of Michigan researchers followed more than 1,000 older married couples. The subjects answered questions about their waist size, stress levels, and marriage quality over a four-year period. All respondents were in their early 60s. They were married an average of 34 years.
Sources of stress included financial problems, work difficulties, and care giving. Scientists also analyzed the quality of the marriages by asking subjects how often their spouse criticizes them, makes unfair demands, or “lets you down.”
Researchers discovered that husbands and wives put on the most weight not when they themselves were under stress…but when their spouse was.2
And women were most susceptible. They were 60% more likely than men to have an increase in waist size when their spouse was stressed.
“We found that your partner’s stress, and not your own, predicted an increased waist circumference over time,” said Professor Kira Birditt. She is an associate professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Professor Birditt led the study.3
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Professor Birditt says she doesn’t know exactly why spouses put on weight when their mate is stressed. But she believes when a spouse sees his or her partner under stress, they empathize and start feeling stress themselves. This causes them to eat more to cope.
The study found that marriage quality also has an effect on waistlines. But only for wives. Wives who reported marriage problems put on weight. Husbands with troubled marriages did not. Professor Birditt said her research couldn’t explain the difference.
The study was published recently in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.
Fighting Stress: Don’t Go It Alone
How can you avoid catching weight-boosting stress from your partner? The answer is to de-stress as a couple instead of trying to go it alone, said Professor Birditt.
“Couples who create goals together tend to be more successful than those who create them separately,” she said.
“Saying, ‘Let’s go out and walk together after dinner every night’ is better than one partner saying, ‘I’m going to go exercise.’”
Here are four ways to work together to ease emotional strain:
- Laughter. Numerous studies show that laughter reduces stress. Watch TV comedies together and go to funny movies. Even something as simple as sharing cartoons in the newspaper can bring on stress-reducing laughter.4
- Meditation. Studies show that as little as 10 minutes a day lowers your stress dramatically. Try it as a couple.
There are many different ways to meditate. Here’s one of the fastest and simplest: When you feel tension in your spouse, go to a quiet place together. Close your eyes. Take a slow, deep breath through your nose. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
Do this 10 times. It will quickly relax both of you by turning off your “fight-or-flight” response.5
- Excercise. Just 10 minutes of an aerobic activity, like walking, biking, or running deliver hours of stress relief. Take a stroll together after dinner, weekend bike rides, or join each other to walk the dog.
- Sex. It provides both emotional comfort and physical activity. But stress can sap the libido of both men and women. So the stressed partner may not be in the mood. That’s why it’s often better to do another stress-reducing activity first to pave the way for lovemaking.6
One other bit of advice: Avoid pharmaceutical “solutions” for stress. Anti-anxiety drugs can be addictive and have dangerous side effects. Instead, consider these natural alternatives.
In Good Health,
Executive Director, INH Health Watch