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Buddy Up and Get Fit

By Dallas Hudgens
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 29, 1999; Page N66

WHEN it comes to exercise, peer pressure is a good thing. That's why many people choose to work out with a friend, spouse or acquaintance.

"Exercise partners motivate each other even when they're not yet at the gym," says Rick North, fitness director at the Silver Spring YMCA. "It's easy to make an excuse for one person, a lot harder for two. If you know your buddy is waiting for you, you've got to go."

A study by HealthPartners, a Minneapolis HMO, backs up North's claim that a little friendly prodding can be an effective way to get people off their duffs. One hundred people who were not physically active took part in the study. During a six-month period, they received regular phone calls from counselors who encouraged them to exercise and who offered advice on how to maintain a physically activelifestyle. The personal support offered by the counselors, combined with the counselors' suggestions on how to form a social support system made up of friends, neighbors or family members, proved successful. At the end of the six-month period, 91 percent of the study group was exercising at least four days a week.

"The social support system was probably one of the most important messages the counselors gave," says the study's lead author, Nico Pronk, an exercise physiologist. "A friendly environment is an important aspect of being successful."

Friendship, of course, is a two-way street. In a fitness partnership, one person can't expect the other to act as his full-time personal trainer. At times, each has to act as the other person's Rock of Gibraltar.

"There'll be nights when one of you shows up motivated and the other is not," North says. "I train with two brothers, and it's very motivating because, on any given day, one of us has a wild hair and ends up pushing and challenging the others."

Ideally, exercise buddies will share similar fitness abilities and a desire to follow the same workout schedule. Sometimes, the strongest partnerships are those formed by people who live under the same roof.

"My wife and I started working out together three years ago, and I saw an instant benefit," says Eric Ekeroth of Arlington. "She likes to work on her legs and do aerobics, and I'm your typical guy who wants to do bench presses, military presses and bicep curls. So, we mix it up. She keeps me honest on legs, and I keep her honest on upper body."

Ekeroth and his wife, Sydney, meet after work at Gold's Gym in Rosslyn or Clarendon. Sydney says that training with someone who knows what she is capable of doing -- and who isn't afraid to remind her of it -- helps her get the most out of a workout.

"A good partner should know your weak spots, so they can push you when you need it," she says. "When you don't have a partner, it's easy to cheat and not push yourself to the maximum."

Sydney views the workouts as quality time spent with her husband. That's not to say this arrangement would prove blissful for all couples. A partnership between spouses or significant others can pose some unique challenges.

"There's a thin line between offering motivation to your spouse and offering what they may think is criticism," North says. "It's like trying to teach a loved one to drive. It should be easy, but it can become very stressful."

Sydney thinks the most important rule in these arrangements is to never push your mate to the point of frustration.

"Someone close to you should know when to back off," she says. "If you're pushed too hard and too quickly, you're going to say, 'This is not something I want to do on a regular basis.' "

If you'd rather keep your love life and fitness routine separate, rest assured there are other avenues for securing an exercise buddy. Ask a friend, co-worker or neighbor if they'd like to make a fitness pact. Another option is joining a sports team. Local rec departments offer everything from volleyball to flag football. Between practices and games, your fitness level is bound to improve.

"Team sports are helpful, but you can make less formal commitments as well," North says. "In our aerobics classes, I see groups of people who come to the same classes every week. There's a commitment to being there, because they enjoy getting together and talking to one another before and after class."

Some partnerships are born of necessity. You're at the gym, and you need someone to spot you on a bench press. So, you ask someone to help you. The next thing you know, they're asking you to return the favor. Suddenly, you're discussing training techniques and taking turns on the weight machines.

Amy Sergi didn't know a soul in Ashburn when she moved there last year. A former personal trainer, she started working out at the Ashburn Sports Pavilion. In the beginning, she felt somewhat guilty leaving her year-old son in the facility's nursery. But it wasn't long before she met several other women who were in the same position. They formed an exercise group, and the five of them now meet and work out together Monday through Friday.

"We've developed a play group outside the gym, as well," Sergi says. "So the kids are friends, and they enjoy seeing each other at the gym's nursery. It's a really nice social time for us, as well. We look forward to seeing each other, and we hold each other accountable for working out."

Sergi has joined up with Emily Jones, also from Ashburn, to form a partnership within the group. They are training together for this year's Marine Corps Marathon.

"I was lucky to meet someone like Amy," Jones says. "I run, and she's a personal trainer. So she has taught me how to lift weights properly, and I've helped her with the running."

Whatever knowledge they share with one another, each agrees that the main benefit of the group is that it's just more fun to work out with other people.

"We take our workouts seriously, but it's also a time for us to get away from our kids and to relieve some of the stress in our lives," Sergi says. "It's not just a training group anymore. We go out and enjoy other social activities together now. If we hadn't come to the gym, we wouldn't have this friendship."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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