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Getting healthy requires partner’s support

Anyone who has tried to quit smoking, lose weight or exercise knows that their partner, if they have one, is a key to their success.

When I was a kid, my mom thought about quitting smoking after the surgeon general’s report showing that it caused cancer. She was a two-pack-a-day smoker, but thought it was time to quit.

My favorite aunt Sylvia had quit. My mom’s sister Myrtle had quit. Many of her friends had quit. Clearly it was time for my mother to step up to the plate, bite the bullet, go the whole nine yards and all that good stuff.

The problem was my dad. Gotta bless him, he smoked stinky cigars all over the place – at home, in the car, with his friends, on the golf course. He chewed them, too, leaving the butts all over the house. Of all my childhood memories, that one is the most yucky.

Dad thought that since the feds didn’t directly criticize cigars, they were still OK to smoke. By the way, many people still have that delusion, that smoking stogies, chewing tobacco and using snuff or snus have no consequences. If I have one word for that delusion it is, well, delusional.

Now, I was part of that delusion for a while. I smoked a pack a day while I was in college, thinking it was sexy. I eventually stopped smoking cigarettes and started going to a pipe, thinking it made me look smarter. (Where did that come from? Cary Grant in the movies.) But I eventually saw the light and kicked butt. Now back to mom. She tried to quit and my dad kept on puffing. The result for her was failure after failure. Because he didn’t quit, neither did she.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that when your partner isn’t with you on changing your health habits, your chances of success drop significantly. Clearly, changing behavior is a team sport.

Researchers following more than 4,000 people in a major longevity study looked at smoking, weight loss and physical activity to see how having a partner involved affected attempts to make changes. Partners, in this study, were live-ins, married or not, straight or gay.

Here’s the skinny:

• If your live-in mate smokes and keeps on puffing, your chances of successfully quitting are a dismal 8 percent. If they quit when you do, the success rate jumps to a whopping 50 percent.

• When it comes to working out more, if your partner does it, then your chances of doing it are 66 percent. That drops to 25 percent if they continue their slug-bug behavior.

• And as for losing weight, a big bugaboo in Buffalo, if your partner is on board with shedding pounds, your chances of success are 25 percent. If they don’t make an effort, then your success rate drops to 10 percent.

And here’s the most interesting part of the study: The effects were present only if the partners were tackling the same issues, if they were each smokers, non-exercisers and overweight. They each had to be practicing the same bad habits.

My spin: When you live with someone, they clearly play a role in what you do. We doctors have been negligent in factoring in this idea. We should pay more attention to our patients’ social environment.

And if you’re single, extend this research to your life – find a friend with the same goals you have and work at them together. Like I said earlier, health is a team sport. It’s up to you to join the right team.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician, professor, author and broadcast journalist. He hosts a radio program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7; email him at zorba@wpr.org.

See related column on smoking, Page 6