Marriage can be bad for physical fitness

People who stay single, or become single again by divorce, may be somewhat more physically fit than married people, a new study suggests.

Research that followed nearly 8,900 adults for several years found that men and women who got married during that time tended to lose some cardiovascular fitness, as measured by treadmill tests.

In contrast, men who got divorced during the study saw a modest increase in their fitness levels.

The study

The study, reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, does not prove that a change in marital status directly causes the change in fitness - for better or worse.

Still, it may support the notion that once people are married and, presumably, off the dating market, they tend to let themselves go a bit. But if they remain single or get divorced, they have more incentive (or more time) to get in shape.

That's not to say that there's a huge fitness chasm between singles and married couples.

In this study, changes in marital status were related to only small changes in fitness, lead researcher Dr Francisco B. Ortega, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, told.

Mix of factors

He stressed that any one person's fitness levels depend on a complex mix of factors, including genetics, exercise habits, body composition and overall health.

The findings are based on 6,900 men and 1,971 women who were followed for just over three years at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas. They had physical exams, reported on their lifestyle habits and underwent treadmill tests to gauge their physical fitness.

The researchers found that women who remained single during the study had a small increase in fitness levels over time. That gain was not seen among women who got married.

For their part, men who married showed a decline in fitness - but so did those who stayed single, though theirs was a smaller loss. For men, the differences were more apparent when the researchers looked at divorce and re-marriage.

Divorce ups fitness levels

Men who got divorced during the study showed a gain in fitness levels, while those who remained married saw no change. Meanwhile, men who were divorced at the outset showed a general decline in fitness over time - but the drop was steepest among those who got re-married.

There was no evidence of any divorce "benefit" among women. However, the researchers say one reason could be that there were far fewer women in the study than men, and only a small number of women changed their marital status during the follow-up period.

The researchers say the findings highlight the role of social factors in people's fitness levels.


"This study provides for the first time evidence that marital transitions are (an) important social stimulus that can influence fitness," Dr Ortega said.

And that fits in with the general idea that major life transitions affect people's health habits, noted Dr Steven N. Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, who also worked on the study.

"Sometimes these effects are positive and sometimes negative," Dr Blair said.

"I think a message to the public is that they need to be aware of the possible effects of life transitions, and try to make plans to maintain a healthful lifestyle."(Reuters Health/December 2010)

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