Shana Verstegen by Shana Verstegen

During this romantic time of year, it’s common to see an influx of “partner workouts” and “why couples should train together” articles. However, let’s enter the real world for a minute. Rarely are both partners at identical fitness levels, which can result in feelings of frustration, insignificance or failure. It can also set the stage for an unhealthy view of exercise and potentially damage the relationship. This doesn’t mean, however, that couples cannot exercise together. Here we examine some benefits to partner workouts, warning signs that your workouts may not be helpful to the relationship, and options for making exercise fun and healthy for you and your significant other.

Why Couples Should Exercise Together

The benefits of working out together are numerous. High on the list: the social support the two of you provide each other as you embark on your fitness journey together. Additionally, several studies have demonstrated that couple workouts can increase levels of happiness and attraction in a relationship and help partners reach their fitness goals faster.

Dr. David Lacocque, clinical and sport psychologist for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Athletic Department and a private family therapist, believes that exercise can be a great way for busy couples to reconnect. He lists some benefits of couple training that he has witnessed in his practice: “Providing encouragement and support, witnessing the other’s successes, building trust during those vulnerable moments, and suffering together and then laughing about it afterwards are just a handful of ways that working out together can be a great way to strengthen a relationship.”

When Couple Workouts May Not Be Healthy

Despite the research and countless articles about partner workouts, they are not always the moonlight and roses they are made out to be. It is common for feelings of tension to arise when one partner has a higher fitness level than the other. Further stress can be created if one member of the relationship tries to control the workout session, assigning the exercises and potentially criticizing the form and ability of the other.

“More so than other activities, working out together can bring up challenging themes such as trust, vulnerability and power dynamics,” explains Dr. Lacocque. While some couples may welcome a bit of friendly fitness competition, it may cause too much stress on others. Here are some exercise options that may not be completely competition-free, but help to level the playing field in an effort to avoid conflict.

Safe and Fun Exercise Options for All Levels of Fitness

Hire a Trainer: This essential first step is not just for couples, but for anybody ready to venture into a fitness program. Having an ACE Certified Personal Trainer take you and your partner through various exercise options and assign a program can help remove the “controlling” aspect of hitting the gym.

Cycling Classes: Indoor cycling provides a great cardiovascular workout that is accessible to all levels of fitness. You and your partner control the tension on your own bikes, allowing you to sweat side by side, even if you are at different ends of the fitness spectrum.

Water Fitness Classes: Not just for old ladies wearing swim caps, water fitness classes are appealing to all levels of fitness, from pro athletes to seniors. The water can be used to unload body weight and reduce impact on the joints. It can also be used as resistance to make exercises even harder. Every level of fitness can have a safe yet challenging workout in the pool.

Circuit Training: Many couples enjoy setting up circuits together. You and your partner each select a few exercises and the amount of weight or resistance you are comfortable using. You can move through the circuit together or at different stations, providing each other with motivation but not necessarily side-by-side comparison.

TRX Training: A major benefit of the TRX Suspension Trainer and TRX Training classes is the ability for all fitness levels to quickly adjust the intensity of the exercises simply by moving their feet. Like cycling and water fitness, the ease of adaptation won’t leave one member of the team feeling less than adequate.

Coed Sports: Rather than risking head-to-head competition, join a friendly coed sports team and stay fit and be social together. A team with a wide range of ability levels is a great place to add fun to a workout, without either you or your partner feeling insignificant. Just remember, if weight loss is your goal, make sure there isn’t too much beer consumption.

Boxing: With boxing franchises such as 9-Round and TITLE Boxing Club popping up all over, it’s easy to find a place to hit a heavy bag with some great instruction for safety. Once again, each of you determines your individuals intensity level for this great workout, which enhances cardiovascular fitness, total-body strength, and hand-eye coordination. And if there is a strain in the relationship, this is a great place to relieve that stress.

Same Time, Same Place, Different Activities: Many couples polled enjoy taking the time in the gym together, but prefer to do their own workouts. They still motivate one another to stay active and fit, and both benefit from the improved fitness levels and endorphin rush but doing separate workouts helps eliminate any potential conflicts that might arise.

As Dr. Lacocque points out, “Constructive, open communication is the number one key for success, because it sets the tone for respect and cooperation. It helps to start the conversation by acknowledging that exercise—and the gym in particular—is a situation that means different things for different people.”

With so many options to choose from, there’s really no reason to avoid exercising with your significant other—just be sure to focus less on competition and control and more on being his or her greatest source of support.