Results indicated that for young adult women, having a significant other who had health promoting attitudes and behaviors was associated with an increased likelihood of eating fruits/vegetables and engaging in physical activity, and a decreased likelihood of being overweight/obese, even after adjusting for young adult health behaviors five years earlier. For young adult men, having a significant other who had health promoting behaviors and attitudes was associated with an increased likelihood of engaging in physical activity, but was not associated with healthy eating and/or weight status. Taken together, these findings suggest that having a significant other with health promoting behaviors and attitudes may be protective against adult obesity and other weight-related health behaviors, particularly in young adult women.
Previous studies have shown that men generally benefit more from having a significant other than women [5, 6, 8, 10]. In contrast, results from the current study suggest that young adult women may benefit more from significant other support for weight and weight-related health behaviors (e.g. physical activity and dietary intake habits), compared to young adult men. One explanation for this finding may be related to previous research in the fields of family science and psychology suggesting women are more focused on “relationship” or “connectedness” factors than men [40–42]. This emphasis on connectedness may have an important impact on health behaviors, in that women may pay attention to, or focus more on, the feelings or behaviors of their significant other more than men, thus, making women more likely to engage in similar behaviors, while men may engage in health behaviors regardless of their significant others’ modeling or health attitudes.
It may also be the case that women experience their significant other’s health promoting behaviors and attitudes as a type of “support system” in their own efforts to be healthy. This hypothesis is supported by weight-loss research that has shown that women identify the importance of having a significant other as an exercise partner when trying to increase daily exercise, keep weight off and make healthy dietary changes [43, 44]. Thus, results of the current study are important to consider in regard to obesity treatment and prevention efforts with young adult women. Including a significant other in interventions may be important in creating supportive environments for health behaviors to occur. Also, assessing the level of health-related support from the significant other would be important in order to gauge the level of support that is available for the young adult women.
While having a significant other with health promoting behaviors/attitudes was not associated with decreased overweight/obesity or increased fruit and vegetable intake for young adult men, there was a significant association with increased physical activity. This is important to consider when targeting men in obesity prevention interventions. It may be the case that men are influenced by the significant other, but only through specific mechanisms such as physical activity.
This study has a number of strengths, including the use of a large, diverse, population-based, longitudinal cohort sample allowing for generalizability of study findings to other young adult populations from US metropolitan areas. However, findings from this study must also be interpreted in light of certain limitations. First, the survey utilized here did not assess for length of relationship. It is possible that the longevity of a relationship may be related to the strength of the influence of the significant other on young adults’ health behaviors. Further, only participant’s report of significant others’ health behaviors and attitudes were assessed. While this may be a limitation, it may also be equally important to assess. For example, research has shown that one’s perception of a romantic partner’s beliefs and behaviors versus measured beliefs and behaviors is more predictive of one’s own beliefs and behaviors . Although adjustment for Time 2 health behaviors and BMI allowed us to reduce issues of unmeasured confounding due to the self-selection of a partner with similar health behaviors and weight status, these issues may not have been entirely eliminated and residual confounding may still exist. In addition, while adjusting for outcomes at Time 2 allows for a better understanding of the temporal relationship between significant others’ health attitudes and behaviors and young adults’ weight and weight-related behaviors by accounting for potential differences in the outcome measures previous to when the young adults had significant others (e.g. in adolescence/young adulthood), it does not entirely explain temporality due to the cross-sectional nature of this study.
Of note, the behaviors of the significant other have all been interpreted to be positive (i.e. support for healthy eating), but it may also be the case that some significant others are more controlling over their partners' weight and health behaviors, or that they communicate negative attitudes about weight gain. These types of significant other behaviors may also result in healthier diets, exercise, and weight status in the partner, but not through supportive means. Given findings from the current study, suggesting the importance of significant others, future research should explore the types of comments, their context and how they are perceived by the recipient.