A new study done by BYU Family Life professor Dr. Lee Johnson shows that exercise, while helpful for individuals, might not be good for couples. It might, in fact, be an indicator of problems in the relationship. Women in couples therapy with their husbands reported that the more they exercised, the more intense their arguments tended to be.
The study consisted of daily surveys from 36 heterosexual couples, cohabitating or married. The questionnaire included such queries as:
- What did you argue about?
- How heated was the argument?
- Since you last reported, did you spend time exercising?
- How many minutes did you exercise?
Dr. Johnson found that when males were more stressed, they reported a higher level of argument intensity. Male exercise had no significant impact on the variables. However, when females reported exercising, both partners reported higher argument intensity.
This result was surprising, and ran counter to the hypothesis Johnson and the other investigators were looking to prove. “Exercise has been an important part of my life,” said Dr. Johnson, “and has contributed to bettering my relationships. I have also seen in be helpful in the lives of couples I work with in therapy. At first, we were surprised by the finding. There is a lot of research on the benefits of exercise helping many mental and physical aspect of our life but no research on how exercise will influence couples who are attending therapy. However, when we thought further about the findings, we came up with the explanation that as time exercising increases that is time away from the relationship, which can contribute to increased arguments. This is our current hypothesis that we need to conduct additional research on.”
Additionally, they posit that some partners might withdraw from their spouses to exercise because of increased argument intensity. Exercise, in this sense, can be an indication of decreased relationship quality.
Meaning and Next Steps
With those findings and theories in mind, Johnson offered the following advice to clinicians:
- be conscientious of how they prescribe exercise interventions in couples therapy
- help males learn to be attentive to their own physiology and facilitate self and partner soothing
By extension, then women and men in couples should be conscientious of how they use exercise in their relationships: as escape or aid.
The researcher plans to continue this study using accelerometers to gauge physical activity as opposed to using participants’ responses. “This study opens many areas for future research. These include generalizing the current study to a sample including non-white couples and non-heterosexual couples,” said Johnson.
Exercise photo courtesy of Curtis MacNewton