Sport and exercise psychology research tells us that we perform better when in direct competition with others versus competing alone against a common benchmark, i.e. you’ll run faster next to another runner than you will running against a clock. Therefore, if you are a competitive person in a relationship with another competitive person, you are a couple well-suited for working out together. Engaging in exercise together allows you to push each other and will cause one to be positively motivated to match the other’s improvement. This is not only beneficial for rapid improvement in strength and fitness, it has psychological and relationship advantages as well. When we engage in a shared task with another person, it increases the bond we have with them and the positive feelings we have toward them.
The opposite effect may occur if you are a competitive person in a relationship with a noncompetitive person (as well as the “expert” in a relationship with the “novice”). The focus on competition by one partner may not only create negative feelings in the noncompetitive partner, it can zap motivation and reduce exercise efficacy. In this relationship dynamic, you should only work out with your significant other if expectations are set ahead of time. In order for positive outcomes physically and psychologically, the competitive person needs to rein in the intensity, and the noncompetitive person needs to articulate when the pressure starts to increase. In this dynamic, try going to the gym together but working out separately.
What if both halves of the couple are not very competitive and struggle to get motivated to work out? In this case, working out together can be the most beneficial of all. Social support and encouragement increases motivation, positive thinking and psychological engagement in exercise. Physical exertion can be used as an activity for health improvement as well as bonding, as you hold each other accountable and grow together.
As you can see, there are many factors that impact the decision of whether to work out with your partner or solo. Once the two of you figure out the best fit, you are likely to experience the following benefits:
• Increase in motivation and drive to achieve
• Feeling as though you have someone to support you in your fitness goals (regardless of whether they are working out with you or hearing about your accomplishments post-workout)
• The ability to stay accountable and continue to meet your goals
• Improvement in psychological functioning through exercise (a poor fit will increase psychological stress and demand)
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and the desire to work out together or alone may change as your fitness changes, as your exercise of choice changes or as your relationship changes. Just because something works now doesn’t mean it always will. Keep the dialogue open and keep physically challenging yourselves as individuals and as a couple.