Research has shown that our environment, especially the people we are surrounded with, is a very important factor when it comes to changing our behaviors. For example, studies indicate that obesity can “spread like a virus”—when one person gains weight, close friends tend to gain weight as well. Now it turns out that the opposite is also true: losing weight can help your significant other to lose weight as well, even if they are not actively engaged in a weight-loss regimen. 

These are the findings from a study conducted by the University of Connecticut and recently published in the journal Obesity. The scientists refer to the results as a “ripple effect” because when one spouse participated in a weight loss treatment, the untreated spouse also experienced weight loss.

Ripples or Ruffles? Your partner may be the deciding factor. (Shutterstock/Getty Images)


The researchers recruited 130 couples and divided them in two groups. One group took part in a Weight Watchers program and the other was given a weight loss handout and left to their own devices for the next 6 months. Only one spouse from each couple received the treatment. 

Overall, 32% of the untreated spouses lost more than 3% of initial body weight in 6 months, regardless of which weight-loss group their partners were assigned to. A 3% loss of body weight is considered to provide a measurable health benefit. The majority of the untreated spouses were male (68.5%), Caucasian (96.2%), were obese (66.2%), and had a mean age of 53.9


Interestingly, couples had similar weight loss trajectories. If one member of the couple lost weight more slowly or rapidly, the other person followed suit. 

The results show that it is not just obesity that can spread like a virus but weight loss as well. The study also demonstrates that lifestyle and weight-loss programs have effects that go beyond the treated individual. 

Professor Amy Gorin, a behavioral psychologist and the study’s lead investigator, says:

“How we change our eating and exercise habits can affect others in both positive and negative ways. When one person changes their behavior, the people around them change. Spouses might emulate their partner’s behaviors and join them in counting calories, weighing themselves more often, and eating lower-fat foods. 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 authors point out that this study supports the growing evidence that weight and weight change within married couples is highly interdependent. Governments can take note and explore ways to actively involve spouses in treatment to more effectively harness household and social dynamics and improve the reach and cost-effectiveness of weight management programs.