Walking is the superfood of fitness and it’s extra special if your spouse comes along, but walking together for exercise may “unintentionally reduce health benefits” for the couple, researchers at Purdue University have found.
Both partners slow down compared to their pace when walking alone, especially if they hold hands, transforming a brisk walk into something less of a workout.
“What we wanted to find was that the slower partner walked faster to match the speed of the faster partner,” Shirley Rietdyk, professor in the department of health and kinesiology at Purdue, told TODAY.
“Unfortunately we didn't find that, but there are other benefits of walking with a partner that need to be considered.”
The study, co-authored by Rietdyk and recently published in the journal Gait & Posture, recruited 72 romantic couples. The partners, who ranged in age from 25 to 79 years old, first walked alone so researchers could measure their typical solo walking speed.
The same measurements were done when the partners walked together and again when they walked while holding hands — something that’s more common than some of the researchers realized.
“I thought, ‘Well, who does that, apart from very young lovers?’ And I started looking around and realized that there are many couples at different ages who walk holding hands,” Rietdyk noted. “It's hard to maintain a speed with that linkage.”
And indeed, it turned out people walked fastest when they walked alone and slowest when holding hands with a spouse, with non-hand-holding walking falling somewhere in between. A previous study found men — who usually walk faster than women — slow their walking pace for a romantic partner, but not a female friend.
That may have several consequences.
Since a brisk pace is recommended for optimal benefits — including improved heart health, lower blood pressure and weight maintenance — couples who consistently walk together for exercise may not get the health boost they’re hoping for.
“If someone substantially slows down when they are walking with someone else, that could negate some of the health benefits recognized if they walked alone at a faster pace,” said study co-author Libby Richards, an associate professor of nursing at Purdue University, in a statement.
Both partners slowed down when walking together, which concerned the researchers because decreased gait speed predicts mortality and future cognitive decline. Some researchers believe gait speed should be considered a vital sign like pulse because it reflects overall health, Rietdyk said.
A sluggish pace can already signal “accelerated aging” in adults in their 40s, while those who naturally walk more briskly may have younger brains and bodies, previous research has found.
Still, the authors of the new study emphasize it’s better to walk slower than not at all, so if a spouse motivates you to get moving that’s an important benefit in itself. You may walk more frequently and for longer.
A partner can also offer social support, accountability and other “prosocial behaviors,” the study noted. Some couples use their walks to reconnect, calm down, resolve conflicts and open up with each other, providing important emotional benefits. A couple’s mental health gets a boost, too, because walking can be meditative as the partners connect with nature.
To get the most out of walking for fitness, Rietdyk recommended mixing up solo workouts and exercise as a couple. She goes for faster walks by herself in the morning and walks with her husband at a slower pace in the evening.
It may be helpful to use a fitness tracker to measure your typical walking speed and prod your spouse to walk a bit faster.
“That's what I do with my husband. I’m like, ‘Come on, let's get going, you’re slowing me down,’” Rietdyk said.