The “Weight Loss Ripple Effect” Among Couples

Communities that people care about enough to be involved in have a considerably large impact on their regular activities. This research into weight loss — showing the social effects on human behavior — is a different but similar variant on that truth.

People who make an effort to lose weight aren’t just helping themselves, they may be helping others too.

That’s the finding of a new University of Connecticut study that tracked the weight loss progress of 130 couples over six months. The researchers found that when one member of a couple commits to losing weight, the chances were good the other partner would lose some weight too, even if they were not actively participating in a weight loss intervention.

In the study, approximately one third of the untreated partners lost 3 percent or more of their initial body weight after six months despite not participating in any active intervention. A three percent loss of body weight is considered a measurable health benefit.

“When one person changes their behavior, the people around them change,” says Gorin, a behavioral psychologist. “Whether the patient works with their healthcare provider, joins a community-based, lifestyle approach like Weight Watchers, or tries to lose weight on their own, their new healthy behaviors can benefit others in their lives.”

The study, published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Obesity, also found that the rate at which couples lose weight is interlinked. In other words, if one member lost weight at a steady pace, their partner did too. Likewise, if one person struggled to lose weight, their partner also struggled.

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Previous findings of a weight loss ripple effect were limited to patients who participated in closely monitored, clinic-based interventions and those who had bariatric surgery. Most of those studies relied on couples self-reporting their weight loss, raising the possibility of error.

The UConn study is the first to use a randomized, controlled design to look at couples’ progress in less structured and widely available weight loss programs. Researchers recorded objective measurements of participants’ weight and examined couples’ weight loss trajectories over time.