Forget date night or a romantic weekend away, the key to a happy relationship is to sweat it out together – at least once a week. Couples who exercise as a pair are not only fitter and more confident in their appearance, but are more likely to stay together, according to recent studies.
Working out together can even lead to a better sex life: 20 per cent of those surveyed admitted regular exercise as a couple increased their libido. “Moving your bodies together lends an energising quality to the activity,” explains Dr Jane Greer, a relationship expert and author (drjanegreer.com). “Afterwards you’ll feel stronger and more confident and you’ll get your adrenalin flowing as well, which carries over into your strength as a couple.”
If the thought of a Lycra-clad his-and-hers gym session brings you out in a cold sweat, no matter – working out in the fresh air is best, according to Corinne Blum, a relationship coach (corinneblum.com). She recommends making an adventure of it; a cycle trial, for example, or an urban hike.
“Many of our frustrations stem not from our relationships but from the fact our lives are dominated by mental activity; we are physically frustrated,” she says. “If you get outside into nature and work out together, you release toxins and disperse this frustration.” Tennis, riding, yoga and golf can all have a positive impact on a relationship, helping couples to be more trusting of each other, more affectionate and less argumentative.
Not only does exercise release mood-enhancing endorphins and adrenalin but it leaves couples feeling energised, which makes them feel happier and attractive in themselves and in turn more affectionate towards others. Studies show that both men and women are more sexually responsive following short periods of intense exercise.
For Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation, however, it’s the commitment aspect of exercising as a couple that makes it such effective therapy. “You’re making a joint plan, you’re putting aside time for each other with intent and there is no substitute for this,” he explains. Studies show that couples who take out gym memberships together are not only more likely to stay together but also are more likely to stick to a fitness schedule, according to the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.
Few things are more bonding than sharing a difficult, tiring or invigorating experience each week, adds Blum. “Every couple needs to have a special thing they do together, a time when they share in each other’s emotions and lay bare their own strengths and weaknesses.”
But what if your partner’s fitness levels vary drastically from your own? Or you hate the idea of golf and they laugh when you suggest they take up horse riding?
If you’re unfit, start by simply walking together, building up to a hike, suggests Dr Greer; Benson and his wife find cycling is a good way to enjoy gentle exercise together. “We usually do things at different speeds with different levels of interest, but cycling is something we can do together,” he explains. “If there’s an element of sacrifice on one person’s part, that’s a good thing. Encouraging each other, supporting each other, slowing down for each other are things we don’t do enough – and if you can talk while you’re doing it, so much the better.”
It doesn’t matter if one person is an expert and the other is a novice, agrees Carol Andrews of Wimbledon Village stables in London, who has seen many more couples taking up riding lessons this year.
“Often the woman is the more experienced rider, but it is amazing how quickly men can pick it up from scratch,” she explains. “If it’s the other way round, and the woman hasn’t ridden before, the man tends to be a gentleman and take it slowly.” On horseback it’s easy to switch off from the world, while enjoying each other’s company, she continues. “People tend to have positive conversations when they’re riding and you’re burning off calories without realising it,” she says.
For those who can’t find common ground, Steph Bridge, a kitesurfing instructor, recommends taking up something new. She learnt to kitesurf with her husband and now teaches couples on the Exe Estuary in Devon. The sport, she says, is perfect for couples: women often find it easier than men to begin with as they are less heavy handed with the kite, which motivates men to improve. “They feed off each other and we operate a buddy system where one person is kiting and the other is helping with the board, which is good for team building.”
Bridge admits she feels quite competitive towards her husband when she’s kitesurfing but a touch of competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to working out, says Greer. “You’ve both got to be good sports and try to motivate the other person, rather than prove you are best.” Jeni Purcell, a wedding cake maker from Surrey, who has been attending regular British Military Fitness (britmilfit.com) circuit-training classes in her local park with her partner, Mark, is motivated by her desire to keep up with him. “Mark is better at running than me but I’m better at ab work,” she explains. “He’s the one person who spurs me on.”
If you can’t play nicely, try ballroom dancing, which requires couples to “get in step” rather than outsmart each other. “Our goal is to make two become one,” explains Karen Hardy, a Strictly Come Dancing judge. “Dancing relies on good partnering, which only happens if you communicate physically, verbally and emotionally.”
When couples arrive for 25-minute taster lessons at her south-west London studio (karenhardystudios.com) it’s often with a nervous and negative demeanour. “I don’t mind this because it’s healthy to be vulnerable sometimes,” Hardy says. “Once they get the hang of a step, they become more open with their partner, laughing and joking.” The woman will take the lead at first but Hardy encourages them to step back and let their husband find their feet. Afterwards, couples almost always sign up for a full course of lessons, she says, after which they will have lost weight and feel closer to their partner. “With dancing you get an adrenalin rush that it’s difficult to emulate in the gym – it feels like a night out rather than an exercise class.”
Whatever sport you choose, it’s important to make time for a debrief afterwards. “Remember it’s not just about the exercise, it’s the connection, too,” says Blum.
Tennis: ‚I’m proud to have a husband who can hit a ball‘
Although we’ve never said it out loud, my doubles tennis partnership with my husband terminated soon after we were married, when we suffered a succession of humiliating defeats against friends. All my fault. He is a calm, consistent and steady player, whereas I am erratic and once I start making mistakes, I just can’t stop. I’m not sure tennis lessons will help.
Catherine, our coach from g-tennis.com, begins our couples lesson by feeding us gentle balls to the service line, which we have to return to her in the service box. It’s more difficult than it looks – hearteningly we both make mistakes and Christian is given almost as many pointers as I am.
Then we move to the baseline and take it in turns to play some groundstrokes. His eye is in by this stage and he’s hitting well. I, meanwhile, am still all over the place. There’s a mood of solidarity at our end of the court, though: I compliment Christian on his increasingly ferocious forehands and he encourages me with a few “aw, nearly”s. I don’t even bite his head off for being patronising.
Any fears I had that Christian would be bored playing with me were unfounded. He is totally absorbed in improving his strokes and the more he gets into it, the more I relax and start to play better. Cue his turn to compliment me.
Now it’s time to work on our top spin using a special machine. I get the hang of it more quickly than he does – watch and learn, Christian. He gets his own back on me when we play a game at the end, but I don’t care – I’ve remembered why I love tennis; I’m proud to have a husband who can hit a ball; I’m certain I can improve. “You got so much better in just an hour,” he says, incredulously, as we leave the court. We’re both hot and exhausted. Anna Tyzack
Ballroom dancing: ‚It was a bonding experience… like surviving a catastrophe‘
Given I’m very much of the Ann Widdecombe school of dancing, I’m sceptical of the relationship-enhancing benefits of learning to tango with my boyfriend, Zander.
On arrival at the Karen Hardy Dance Studios in south-west London for our first ballroom dancing lesson, we’re met with a glass of suitably sweet, pink bubbly – a boon for nerves, if not my wretched co-ordination. The decor is a Strictly Come Dancing fantasy of pale-grey satin, diamanté and tassels. Our instructor, Richard, asks us about our dancing experience. “What I lack in skill, I make up for with enthusiasm,” says Zander.
Richard deftly sidesteps Zander’s suggestion that we dance to Lionel Richie’s All Night Long, and puts a jaunty Paolo Nutini number on the record player. He takes us through a simple opening dance sequence that involves dipping me back like a Hollywood starlet (that’s the idea anyway) and spinning me out like a Frisbee. I never seem to spin in the right direction and end up all over the vast, mirror-lined studio.
Our multiple reflections seem to be watching and judging. “Delicate little steps,” Richard reminds me. As we practice the moves again and again, Richard’s patience and Zander’s aforementioned enthusiasm help to quell my embarrassment and, to my surprise, I start to enjoy myself. When Richard tells us we’ve run out of time, we’re both quite reluctant to stop. Would I say it was a bonding experience? Definitely – in the same way that surviving a catastrophe might bring two people closer together. No wonder the participants of Strictly Come Dancing spurn their spouses and waltz off into the sunset with their dance partners. Miranda Fitzgerald
Karenhardystudios.com offers complimentary ballroom dance taster lessons.
Climbing: ‚I couldn’t help sniggering when he got stuck and froze‘
Abroad, my boyfriend Jonny and I enjoy nothing more than chucking ourselves off (small) cliffs and high rocks into the sea, rafting, surfing or cycling. We are Good On Holiday. But in London, we are a sloth-like pair, spending weeknights in front of the television, bickering semi-affectionately about what to watch. It’s a shame because, separately, we’re active; I play netball and go to the gym; he cycles and plays football.
So, in an attempt to inject holiday-style excitement and non-telly-related bonding into our relationship, we opted to try out climbing at the Seymour Leisure Centre in Marylebone, home to central London’s highest wall. It was Friday after work, we were both tired – but, once we started scrambling up the sheer wall, we perked up. There was friendly competition, mutual mockery – I couldn’t help sniggering when he got stuck and froze, limbs spread like a starfish – but also some genuine encouragement and support (well, he was supportive). It was playful, demanding (my poor spaghetti arms!) a bit scary – and a break from the routine. Olivia Walmsley
Cycling: ‚Seeing each other as sweaty and exhilarated as a pair of teenagers is pretty sexy‘
The instant we get a block of child-free time, my husband Noel and I go mountain biking. The combination of fresh air, time in nature and physical exertion is irresistible to both of us. We share a rush of adrenalin when contemplating a tricky trail, the excitement of pushing ourselves out of our separate and mutual comfort zones, and the grounding of knowing we have each other close by if anything does go wrong.
Mountain biking feels like a metaphor for marriage. It isn’t about competing to beat each other to the finish line. It’s more about pushing your own limits and supporting each other to enjoy the ride. If we were so inclined we could talk about the big stuff as we ride; usually we aren’t. The experience itself is entirely immersive and brings us together as well as any deep and meaningful talk.
It reminds us of the reasons we were attracted to one another. He tells me I look cool on my bike, which are words this 36-year-old mum of two who struggled to look cool even pre-children desperately needs to hear. He shuns Lycra and looks scruffy and ridiculously hot. Seeing each other as sweaty and exhilarated as a pair of teenagers is pretty sexy, especially against a backdrop of the great outdoors.
Free of domestic duties and constant demands from children, we can enjoy each other in the moment and forget our grown-up responsibilities and commitments. It’s a form of mutual escapism that gives us both a feeling of achievement and contentment afterwards. And he fixes my punctures. Even though I am more than capable of doing it myself and it inevitably involves excessive swearing on his part.
To me there is no greater gesture of love than somebody fixing your punctures for you. I hope he’s still doing it for me when we’re in our 70s. Cathy Bussey
Hiking: ‚Atop Monte Forato I went down on one knee‘
The first time I met my wife, Alexandra, I’d just run 10 miles. For our second date, we went cycling; it wasn’t long before we decided to try swimming.
Despite this elaborate courting triathlon, we settled on walking as our shared physical activity of choice. We are both outdoorsy by nature, and hikes allow us to talk, exercise and explore simultaneously. The sense of achievement when, say, reaching a summit is huge – and all the better for having been shared.
Shortly after we started stepping out I bought my first pair of walking boots ahead of a bank holiday in Snowdonia. There followed walks in Shropshire, Suffolk and the south west before we tackled the majestic Apuan Alps in Tuscany last autumn.
Atop Monte Forato – above a natural archway in the rocks and overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea – I went down on one knee: not to tie up my laces but to propose. This further rooted our relationship in the act of walking.
Months later, the tables at our wedding were named after peaks we had scaled together, including Cadair Idris, Monte Sumbra, Win Green and the Wrekin.
Munros were climbed and lochs circumnavigated in apocalyptic conditions during our mini-moon to Scotland. We hope for better weather when we tackle the Japanese Alps and cedar-clad hills of Yakushima this October.
For us, walking is above all an energetic release – but it also involves compromising and being aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As such, it makes us a better team. Felix Lowe
Boxing: ‚A gentle stroll might suit us better‘
Owing to his work commitments and my inability to stay awake beyond teatime, my husband Barney and I can go for days without seeing one another, and when we are together we’re usually slumped in front of a box set, scrolling through our phones. So when the opportunity arises to do a boxing class together, we leap at it.
Even a fitness-phobe like me has heard of Frame (moveyourframe.com), the sleek London gym that runs Punch & Pad classes for couples. I’m thrilled that the aspirational activewear I bought for the school run a few weeks ago is making a cameo in an actual gym.
Any concerns I have that I might suffer some sort of cardiac arrest during the “high-intensity” class are allayed as soon as it starts by our instructor, Jermaine, who assures all the beginners that we will get the hang of it – and have fun.
It is. Within no time I am channelling my inner Rocky and enjoying beating the living daylights out of Barney’s jab pads. In just 45 minutes, I learn to jab, hook and cross (badly), – and that I am very unfit compared with my husband, whose physical prowess has been as nifty as his mental alertness.
It is great to be doing something together without the children, and it’s great to punch out our frustrations – Barney enjoys it so much he’d like to make boxing a regular date night.
I am only sad that with so much focused sparring there isn’t much opportunity for any actual conversation. As a couple, a gentle stroll along the river might suit us better. Etta Rodgers
Marathon running: ‚We were exhausted. But at least we were together‘
Lying on a sunlounger in Bali, on our honeymoon, my new husband and I started planning our future. Not children, houses or careers; instead, our goal was to run a marathon. Emboldened by cocktails we signed up for a half marathon in Sydney – the final city on our tour – having done no training.
We ran it with my brothers-in-law, identical twins and Ironman competitors, who kindly ran at our unfit pace, taking it turns to chivvy us along while pointing out the sights. We finished and we ached, but thought, with a bit of training together, we could do a full one.
Despite the romantic idea of jogging together, I didn’t actually like running with my husband. He’s nearly a foot taller than me, so even when he tries to run slowly, he ends up half a stride ahead. So we trained together, but separately. We followed the same training plan and would leave the house at the same time, armed with running gels, waist bands and headphones, but head off in different directions.
When we returned home – sometimes after a mid-run argument about who could listen to the joint Spotify account – we’d proudly discuss our split times. When we ran 20 miles for the first time we came back buzzing.
On marathon day itself, in New York, we both woke up at 5am with pre-race jitters. Nick was starting 30 minutes ahead of me, so I waved him off and suddenly wished we were running together. When a man in front of me spotted his girlfriend in the crowd at mile 18 I had to gulp back tears. I wanted someone there, too.
When we found each other among the hundreds of shuffling survivors, we could barely speak to each other, we were so exhausted. But at least we were together.
A year later, seven days short of our marathon anniversary, I gave birth to our daughter. High on gas and air, I started manically chatting to the midwife about our marathon. It was the last time I’d felt proud both of what my body could do, and of what we’d achieved as a couple. Now, marathon running days feel like a different life. It’s something I miss. So our next challenge? Parkruns with the baby, as a three. Jessica Salter