First came the jigsaw puzzles. Then the homemade sourdough bread, followed by binge-watching all six seasons of “Downton Abbey.” My coronavirus isolation was not the most physically active or diet-conscious period of my life. Stressed out by the news and unable to go to the gym — or really, almost anywhere — I developed a laissez-faire attitude about health and fitness. I’m fairly sure I wasn’t alone in that.
Now that we’ve moved from strict shutdowns to social distancing and slightly less isolation, I can no longer blame the coronavirus alone for my slothlike ways. Yet, it’s still challenging to get back on track with nutrition and exercise while sticking close to home — and with no friends to cheer me on. So, when a similarly frustrated acquaintance approached me about being virtual accountability buddies, it seemed like the perfect solution for the times.
The role of an accountability partner
Wellness accountability partners help each other set and maintain goals for diet, exercise and overall well-being. The premise is that knowing someone else is watching you — and vice versa — raises the bar and makes it more difficult to slack off on, say, eating healthfully or working out. Knowing that someone else is counting on you does the same.
For example, where you might normally talk yourself out of a workout, if you’ve planned one with a partner, “it’s no longer just about me,” says Angie Fifer, an executive board member with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “I know that if I put off my workout, I’m going to let someone else down.”
Sticking to workouts might be even more important now, with much of the country still in the throes of the pandemic. “We’re dealing with a virus that attacks the lungs,” says Tony Horton, a fitness professional and the creator of the P90X home workouts. “Exercise means deep breathing, which means more durable, resistant lungs.”
But getting back to a healthy routine doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch. “This has been a traumatic period for humans everywhere,” Fifer says. “The loneliness, isolation and lack of connection is not business as usual.” An accountability partner, Fifer says, offers a way for people to connect despite the isolation.
Even the pros benefit from connection when it comes to working out. “I do this for a living,” Horton says. “But I don’t like doing it by myself.” When the pandemic shutdowns started, Horton, who is used to working out with friends in his home gym, organized a group to start exercising together via Zoom. Accountability, he says, “is a pact. You’re going to show up.” The right partner or partners should help push you and create a “nice, fun, competitive challenge.” (Those Zoom sessions quickly morphed into real-time, Horton-led workouts on Facebook Live, where anyone is free to join in.)
Being an accountability partner doesn’t always mean clocking workouts together. “People need different types of accountability depending on where they’re less disciplined,” says Aoife Okonedo Martin, a personal trainer with London-based Ultimate Performance, which also runs gyms in D.C. and Los Angeles. “Maybe it’s staying active or keeping with portion control at mealtime.” A client in the latter case might take pictures of a meal and send them to Martin. It’s not done so much for scolding or approval, but as a way of “owning” whatever part of wellness that person is seeking to address.
Choosing an accountability partner
My accountability buddy and I don’t schedule synchronized workouts, but we do keep on top of each other by checking in at least once daily via WhatsApp to share whether we’re eating healthfully, have squeezed in a workout and have practiced self-care. It has only been a few weeks, but so far, it seems like we’re on the right track. It also seems like our personalities and wellness goals overlap enough that we’re well-suited as partners, which, according to experts, makes all the difference.
Although it makes sense if your goals and your partner’s goals align, experts caution that you probably shouldn’t be too similar in terms of where you are on the wellness map. “Wherever you are now is not going to get you to the next level,” says Samantha Montpetit-Huynh, a Toronto-based online health and wellness coach and TV personality. She recommends looking for someone who has already achieved a greater level of fitness than you, even if that person’s six-pack has gotten a little soft recently. “Someone who’s gone through it, who understands the process of losing weight and getting in shape is going to better understand what you’re going through.”
“From a fitness perspective,” Fifer says, “it’s okay if the person is in a little better shape than you, or that they’re helping you along a bit.” But it’s demotivating, she says, when the person is far more advanced and the gap is too great. “If you’re running three miles and they’re running 13, you might not feel like you’ve accomplished very much.”
Look for someone you can trust will show up, just as that person has to be able to count on you to do the same. And try to find someone who will give you the just-right combination of support and tough love. That means finding someone who will be a cheerleader and also, as Montpetit-Huynh says, “kick your a--.”
It’s a delicate balance. “You’re here to support each other, not judge each other’s mistakes,” Horton says. If the stakes are too high, or one person is dominant, the partnership isn’t going to be much fun. “It’s about support, support, love and support,” he says, “with some tough love along the way.” Find people, he says, who need your help just as you need theirs, and with whom you genuinely enjoy spending time — even if it’s virtual time.
If you thrive in a team setting, Horton says, it’s fine to add more than one person as an accountability partner: “The more the merrier.” There is also safety in numbers; if one person drops out, you’re not left without a partner.
On the other hand, Martin prefers one-on-one accountability partnerships, because, she says, “it’s too easy to hide in a team.” Most of us work well knowing that one person “has their eyes on us all the time.”
And unless you’re half of a super-fit and motivated couple or pair of friends, it’s better to look elsewhere for an accountability partner. “So many of my clients complain that their spouse is their worst sabotager,” Montpetit-Huynh says. A spouse might encourage you to snuggle on the couch rather than work out; a close friend might be more likely to let you off the hook. Plus, Fifer adds, it’s nice to have that “other” relationship dedicated to something that’s just about your personal well-being.
Structuring a beneficial partnership
Whether you choose spreadsheets, Zoom workouts or a Slack channel, the experts agree that there should be some structure to the arrangement, and that daily check-ins are a must. Establishing ground rules is essential. Agree on how long the partnership will last, what your goals are, what information you’re going to share and how you’ll check in.
“Poke the person if you don’t hear from them,” Montpetit-Huynh says. Horton says he and his accountability team schedule a month at a time and agree on which workouts they’ll do (virtually) together. Despite the grueling reputation of P90X and other programs Horton has developed, the workouts aren’t always monster sessions. “Sometimes, we just all take a walk and check in afterward,” he says.
Rebecca, my accountability partner, and I set up a shared, three-month spreadsheet where we post daily progress on nutrition, exercise, sleep and self-care. We use the MyFitnessPal app to record calorie intake, which is offset by daily steps tracked on our phones plus whatever workout we got in. On WhatsApp, we check in a few times a day about that day’s successes and failures, and what challenges are on the horizon, be it a dinner out or a looming deadline that might trigger stress-eating. It sounds like a lot of extra steps to add to our days, but in just a few weeks’ time, it has become second nature.
Despite the responsibility to your partner that comes from an accountability pact, Montpetit-Huynh says that, ultimately, accountability also helps individuals realize that it’s about them, not about the other person. “At the end of the day, you’re being accountable to yourself. Whether you work out, drink your water and eat your veggies doesn’t affect me,” she says. “You’re the only one who’s going to receive positive benefits. And nobody ever says, ‘Gee, I really wish I didn’t go for that 30-minute walk.’ ”
Heath is an author, editor and travel writer based in central Italy. Her website is elizabethfheath.com.