Exercise buddy system helps partners stay the course

Credit: Adam Pretty/Allsport
Those of us kicking off our annual fitness campaigns this month know all too well what some experts are warning the first six to eight weeks can "make it or break it" for any lifestyle change.

But did you know that if you attempt to scale that mountain of a New Year's resolution with a friend, you have a much greater chance of making it to the top?

The buddy system may be the answer for those whose idealism doesn't match their ability to persevere. Experts say that weight-loss and exercise partners provide a combination of competition, accountability and support that almost ensures success.

In a recent study of married couples who joined health clubs together, Jack Raglin, an associate professor of kinesiology at Indiana University, found that couples who worked out separately had a 50 percent dropout rate after a year; whereas couples who went to the gym together, regardless of whether they focused on the same type of exercise, had only a 10 percent dropout rate.

According to Raglin, a fitness partner doesn't have to be a spouse, but it should be someone who is significant in your life.

"It has to be someone you wouldn't want to disappoint," he said. "Sometimes it works better if it's more than one person. Knowing that a whole group of people are waiting for you at the corner in 20-degree weather can motivate you to show up."

Power in numbers

Mike Rogers, 33, of Kirkwood, Mo., said he and his fitness buddies use a phone tree to ensure that everyone shows up.

"We're on the phone every day saying, 'C'mon let's meet at The Heights (the year-old Richmond Heights community center) at such-and-such time," he said. "On any given day, there's at least one of us who is not particularly enthusiastic. Whoever that is will get a few phone calls that day."

The friends have been meeting at one gym or another for more than five years. A few guys have come and gone, but the core group Rogers; Chris Gentry, 34, of Olivette; David Hayden, 32, of St. Louis; Mike Schoedel, 34, of Richmond Heights; and sometimes Corky Miller, 29, of Richmond Heights still meets almost every evening to work out, and occasionally on the weekend to shoot some hoops.

An intense bunch of guys, they wouldn't give the impression that any of them needed help with motivation. Yet they have the buddy system down: "We might do well by ourselves," Schoedel said. "But we know we work harder with other people around. It's an understanding between us. We know each other's limits and strengths. There are certain things they know they have to push me on, and I know to push them on."

Miller, a triathlete, does much of his event training apart from the group but often joins the guys for weight training and runs. He said it gives him a chance to catch up with his friends and helps break the monotony of his routine.

"The most important thing in fitness is consistency," he said. "The camaraderie and accountability you get with buddies makes it easy."

According to Raglin, adaptability is an essential ingredient for any successful fitness partnership.

"You can have varying fitness levels and goals and still benefit from the buddy system, provided there is some overlap," he said. "You have to be clear on what each buddy wants to get out of the workout."

'We make a good team'

Ada Gibson, 69, of Breckenridge Hills, took up walking for exercise shortly after she retired in 1993. She fell into a good routine, arriving at Northwest Plaza by 6 a.m. every morning and walking once around the mall. Two years later her husband, Bob Gibson, now 71, retired and found he was literally bored stiff after spending a few months around the house. So he decided to join her.

While Bob Gibson finds joint health the main benefit of walking and his wife credits it with keeping her figure trim, the advantage of exercising together is clear to both. It helps keep them interested.

"It can be dull," Ada Gibson said. "But when you've got somebody to talk to you don't realize the amount of time you've put in or the number of miles you've gone."

Although she had to adjust her routine a bit to accommodate her husband (he prefers an extra hour of sleep), Ada Gibson said it was worth it.

"When I wake up and say, 'Oh, I sure don't feel like walking today,' he encourages me to do it anyway. It's very easy to drop off and not do it. That's why we walk every day. If you take one day off, it's easy to just keep taking another and another."

"The best thing my wife ever said to me was 'We make a good team,'" Gibson said. "We don't always agree all the time. But when the chips are down, we work together."

After so many years together they recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the Gibsons have gotten into a healthy groove. Eating right and exercising are such an integral part of their lifestyle, they can't imagine not doing it.

"As you get older, you realize that the most important thing in your life is your health," Bob Gibson said. "But if you have good health and your spouse doesn't, it's not very enjoyable. Walking together is a way to take good care of one another."

Dieters: A different breed

Recognizing the value of the buddy system to dieters, most commercial diet plans offer some kind of discount or other incentive to buddies. Kathleen Morrison, a Weight Watchers spokeswoman, said that members who join as buddies are generally twice as successful.

"They attend more meetings and tend to hang in there the longest," she said.

Typically, the Weight Watchers' buddy plan works best woman to woman, Morrison said.

"Women tend to be more supportive of each other," she said. "When it's a husband-wife combination, they tend to be more competitive and less supportive of one another's weight loss. Competition can be a good thing, but in this circumstance the wives can get frustrated because men generally lose weight much more quickly than women do."

According to Morrison, the best weight-loss buddy is someone who wants to lose weight as much as you do.

"The buddy needs to be genuinely interested in your success, and have your best interests at heart," she said. "The buddy's role is really to help the other person see that they are doing their best.

"The important thing with weight loss is not how hard you fall, but how many times you get back up. Your buddy is there to help you get back up as many times as it takes for you to achieve your goals."

For all its apparent advantages, the buddy system is not foolproof. It can be a sink-or-swim proposition, Raglin warns.

"It's crucial that your buddy be equally if not more committed," Raglin said. "Having an exercise partner who is going along to help you out rather than to help themselves or change their own lifestyle may backfire. When one buddy quits or drops out, usually the other does as well."

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