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I had two important men in my life during the months leading up to my wedding: my loving fiancé, Jon, and my intense trainer, Jason. While I'd been a three-times-a-week gym-goer for a decade, now I was suddenly spending more time with Jason than Jon. Military-drill-style commands ("Drop and give me 20! One more!") rang in my ears instead of romantic sweet nothings.
It was thrilling to watch as speed, distance, and calories burned climbed higher on the treadmill while my dress size plunged. I even maintained the intensity of my sweat sessions on our Hawaiian honeymoon, hitting the gym at our resort. Once home from paradise, though, life took over and my routine relaxed. My portion sizes began to mirror my husband's, and I even started to follow his lead after dinner, treating myself to ice cream most nights. By our first anniversary I'd gained back every pound I'd lost, and then some.
Mine is a familiar story, as it turns out. Research suggests that "newlywed spread" strikes the majority of couples. "Transition in relationships influences weight," explains Maureen Murtaugh, PhD, RD, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "It's a time when you need to pay special attention to how much you're eating and working out, before you wake up and think, Oh, no, I gained five pounds."
The average newly married woman piles on even more than that -- about nine extra pounds over five years compared with a single woman, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study. At the same time, she's probably exercising less. A 2010 study of more than 8,000 people over three years showed cardiovascular fitness levels dropped in those who were wed, while single women and divorced men got into better shape. "It may have to do with the 'marriage market' theory," says study author Francisco Ortega, PhD. Married people may work out less because they're no longer concerned about looking good enough to attract a mate. Essentially, they think they can afford to let themselves go.
"When I was single, as soon as my jeans started getting tight, I'd diet and exercise," says Ali Norvell, 30, a librarian in Hendersonville, North Carolina. "Once I got married, I would just buy new jeans." Ali gained 25 pounds in four years after she and her husband said "I do" in 2005. "I had a moment of truth every year, and I'd lose some weight, but I always gained it back," she says. "I couldn't stay motivated."
Biology may be partly to blame. The emotional shift that comes with commitment can cause a change in brain chemistry, which may affect our weight, according to Helen Fisher, PhD, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who has conducted brain scans on couples in love. When you're dating, almost everything you do together is new and exciting. "Novelty drives up the dopamine system in the brain, and that gives you energy, which makes you more active and helps keep your weight down," Fisher says. In contrast, relaxing into a deep attachment to a mate has the effect of increasing oxytocin -- the "love drug" brain chemical that is linked to bonding -- in place of dopamine and its rush. Good-bye, Pilates reformer. Hello, husband-size portions and couch-potato cuddling.The Honeymoon Is Over
But hormones are only part of the picture. The biggest weight-gain culprit is the change in lifestyle that happens after marriage. When couples merge households and finances, they have much to negotiate: where to spend Thanksgiving, who's going to scoop out the litter box, when to start a family.
"It's a huge adjustment," says Michelle Gannon, PhD, a psychologist and the founder of Marriage Prep 101 workshops in San Francisco. "Balancing 'we' time with 'me' time is a challenge for most newlyweds, especially women, who tend to prioritize their relationships over themselves. They are often likely to sacrifice exercise for hanging out with their spouse."
Your new husband may even encourage less-than-healthy habits. "When you're combining lifestyles, sometimes the less active one wins out," says Cheryl Forberg, RD, nutritionist for The Biggest Loser and author of the cookbook Flavor First. When your guy wants you to skip your morning run to sleep in with him, it's easy to roll over and give in.
Living together also changes women's eating routines, usually for the worse. "You're probably making more lavish meals," Fisher says. Plus, men just eat a lot. The average active man needs up to 3,000 calories a day, compared with an active woman's 2,200, and his metabolism is 10 to 15 percent faster, which means he can put away bigger portions and not gain an ounce. The next thing you know, your plate looks like his does and your clothes are getting tight.
When Anjani Webb, 25, a marketing professional in Greensboro, North Carolina, got married, she began to bulk up immediately. Ten pounds later she realized that her spouse's habits were making her pack on the pudge. On her own, Anjani was happy to make a turkey sandwich or heat up a low-cal frozen meal for dinner, but that didn't cut it with her husband. Soon she was eating mountains of spaghetti with him a few times a week, munching on crackers in front of late-night TV, consuming sugary sodas and tubs of popcorn at the movie theater. "We were sharing," she explains. "He didn't want a small popcorn or diet soda. It was easy to fall into his snacking routine."
That's a slippery slope, especially if you're also slacking off on your workouts. "You need to be aware of self-sabotaging thoughts, like, It's okay to eat this food, because my husband's eating it," says Judith Beck, PhD, author of The Beck Diet Solution. To combat the lure of bigger portion sizes or fatty snacks, she advises writing the following reminder in a pop-up on your smartphone and on strategically placed sticky notes throughout your house: "I can eat whatever whenever, or I can be thinner. I can't have it both ways."
Get back on track by planning your meals with your husband and shopping for the week on Sunday, Forberg suggests. You'll end up eating much more healthfully with some advance prep than you will if you get home from work and have to ask each other, "What's for dinner?" Find a few easy, healthy go-to recipes that you both like and keep the pantry stocked with ingredients for those meals so you can whip them up quickly.
Be mindful of how often you eat out, too. "Make your time together revolve around activity instead of food," says Jennifer Cohen, personal trainer for the show Shedding for the Wedding on the CW. Alternate picking a new skill or activity: Your husband signs you both up for golf lessons one month; you arrange dance lessons the next. "You'll bond over these adventures," Cohen says. "They'll help keep the attraction alive, because fitness boosts your sex life, self-esteem, and energy."
Don't feel guilty about staking out your workout time. "It's okay to prioritize your own exercise and healthy eating even if he doesn't," Gannon says. "Your relationship will be more successful and happy if you are personally happy."
Schedule your workouts on your calendar just like you would any other appointment. Establish a Friday-evening or Saturday-morning exercise habit to help keep you honest. "It's often hardest to stay disciplined on Saturday and Sunday," Forberg says. "If you work out early in the weekend, you won't be as tempted to eat the chips your husband keeps in the pantry. You won't want to waste that hard work."
Focus on your own progress and don't be swayed by your guy's bad habits. If he's a chubby hubby, that doesn't mean you have to be his fitness coach or cheerleader. "The best way to motivate your partner is to lead by example," Cohen says. Your couch potato may come around once he sees the positive effect that exercise and eating well have on your energy level, mood, and body.
Even if you can't enlist your husband in your healthy efforts, ask him to help keep you in check. Because I have no willpower around sweets and I'm allergic to nuts, I ask my husband to buy only nutty treats. Forberg told her significant other not to bring ice cream home. "He learned that if he did, I would eat it all," she says. "Now we don't keep it in the house."
Making exercise and healthy eating a priority will help keep you and your marriage fit. "One of the reasons you got together is you're attracted to each other; do not take that for granted," Gannon says. When you need extra motivation, remember how young and energetic you both looked and felt when you first met, Fisher suggests. Vow now to be faithful partners in fitness and in health.Fit Tips from Married Couples
Ryan and Sheila Viers, 32 and 30
Santa Monica, California
Married since 2005
"I taught Sheila how to cook, and she taught me about healthy eating," Ryan says. "Together we've learned how to make meals, like pecan-crusted chicken tenders and steamed broccoli, that taste great and are also good for us."
Nicholas and Andrea Martin, 31 and 30
Married since 2009
"We joined the local kayak club so we could hang out together after work but still get in our exercise while exploring the water," Nicholas says.
Tom and Nina Curley, 37 and 36
Married since 2001
"Tom watches our two young kids while I go to the gym," Nina says. She does the same for him. "Someday we'll be able to work out together again," Tom adds.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2011.