Diana asks:

“How do I convince my husband to follow the Body for Wife way? He’s got the beer thing down pat …”


James’ answer:

I’ll write this gender neutral, because this will apply to anyone hoping to get a significant other to start exercising.

The short answer is, there is no way. There is no guaranteed way, besides chaining your significant other to a treadmill and standing behind them with a cattle prod. That’s probably illegal, and also not conducive to the long-term health of a relationship, so I don’t recommend it.

There isn’t really much science in terms of getting your partner to do what they don’t want to do, so a lot of this is going to be based on my own experience and experience of working with clients. Simply put, there are (often, not always), three stages of exercise adherence that people go through:

  1. Fear
  2. Duty
  3. Passion

Generally speaking, to go from couch potato to workout warrior, people often progress through these three stages. They start off being fearful of the consequences of inactivity, and that gets them moving, then they stick with it out of a sense of duty (like to you or your kids), and then finally they find their passion for fitness. Hopefully.

It’s an oversimplification of human motivation, but we’re not running a psychology lab here.

In my experience, gentleness with perhaps some subtlety (and a lot of patience) is the way to go. People of all walks and genders have egos, and don’t like having fitness rammed down their throats. Fitness is something everyone should pursue, and pointing this out to someone who is inactive is kind of like pointing out a flaw. People usually don’t like it when you do that.

Another thing I think you should do is avoid any discussion of weight or what someone looks like. Stick to health and enjoyment of life and being able to do fun, active stuff together. Remember, most people have fragile egos about this sort of thing.

And so, I don’t think you should start off by telling your spouse that he’s gonna have a massive coronary if he doesn’t move his ass. Instead, you can continue to be a good role model (to readers – I know that Diana is a fitness nut) for him, but perhaps communicate more about how you enjoy the health benefits of living your lifestyle. In other words, focus on the positive aspects of being fit and communicate these to your spouse gently but consistently, over months and possibly even years. Fear will take care of itself because they’ll come to understand that with all these health benefits of exercise (and eating well), these are things they’re NOT getting by being still.

(On the subject of diet, if they are lousy eaters I recommend tackling on thing at a time. Get them into exercise first, then work on using these same tactics with changing what they eat. Slow and steady.)

Once you feel like you’ve laid the foundation there, you can take the next step, which is communicating to them how important an active, healthy lifestyle is to you and that you’d like it if they were able to join you some times, even if it’s splashing about in a pool or going for a walk. Just spending more time doing something together that involves movement where you’re showing a positive attitude and not negatively judging their performance, but being grateful for their company.

And if they start to show some interest, you can act as a coach and guide. This doesn’t mean you become their personal trainer, but instead become a person they bounce ideas off of in terms of figuring out what’s right for them. It can go so far as figuring out things like schedules and locations, transportation and even finances, because getting in shape usually isn’t free.

Because passion is most important to long-term exercise adherence, it has to be something they enjoy doing (or at least don’t hate at first), so you’ll need to get creative in terms of helping them find their fitness Zen. It doesn’t matter if it’s low intensity; the key is just to help them establish a regular pattern of doing something active. Over time, they can increase things like intensity, frequency, length of time spent exercising, and even choosing more challenging physical activities. I was a lifter for 10 years before I was ready for the challenge of running. And I was a runner for over 8 years before I completed my first marathon. Again, slow and steady. Baby steps will most likely be what get them there.

For my wife, I was into fitness for a full decade before she was. Much of the reason why she wasn’t into it was a psychotically busy schedule, what with medical school, residency, building a medical practice and having children. When our youngest started pre-school my wife found a gap of a few hours a week that happened to coincide with beginner karate classes at a nearby dojo. That’s all it took, and now she has her 2nd degree black belt.

Don’t discount luck in terms of finding what sticks.

Overall, the most important thing to remember is slow, gentle, supportive persistence. You need to have both patience and kindness. You can’t guilt, threaten or force your partner into becoming a regular exerciser, but instead must create an environment that allows for them to want to give it a try.

Yes, you can sit down and talk about it. You can communicate how important it is to you, but it needs to be done from a perspective of helping rather than chastising.

Being a regular exerciser is hard, which is why most people don’t do it. To get someone else to get with a program, you need to shoulder some of the burden. You need to do all you can to make it easier and more available to them so they’re less likely to bail out or just never start in the first place. Eventually, the goal is to get them to be independently motivated, but in the early months they’re going to need your help.

They need your help, not your judgment. If it will happen, it will be the kind, gentle, supportive route that takes them to their fitness destination.


This piece was first published on my old site on September 11, 2013.

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James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.