Approaching weight loss as a family affair

UMass Dartmouth Psychology Professor Ted Powers researching spouses’ support for weight loss

Ted Powers
Psychology Professor Ted Powers researching optimal spousal support in the weight loss process.

UMass Dartmouth Psychology Professor Ted Powers is part of a National Institute of Health (NIH) funded study in collaboration with Dr. Amy Gorin and others at the University of Connecticut to research optimal spousal support in the weight loss process. The project in particular applies the theory of self-determination, which focuses on the degree to which individual’s behavior is self-motivated. The study hopes to address the fundamental importance of autonomy support in weight management.

The primary aim of this study is to examine the impact of a couples weight loss program rooted in self-determination theory on weight loss outcomes. Previous couple weight loss programs have been evaluated and in general have produced small additional weight loss benefits. However, further research is needed to develop and test a theory-based couples weight loss program to determine whether spouses’ can facilitate each other’s weight loss and to understand what type of support is most beneficial in the weight loss process.

Obesity is a significant public health problem yet current treatment models continue to approach weight management from an individual perspective. According to the research team’s proposal, more than 69 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese with all American adults projected to reach this status by 2048. Obesity may result in staggering medical costs and the current generation of children may be the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents due to excessive weight. The speed with which obesity rates have increased suggests that social and physical environments are the primary drivers of this epidemic according to researchers.

‌Married couples are an important relationship to target for joint behavior change and weight loss. Most eating and activity decisions are made in the‌ home, so it makes intuitive sense to involve other adults from the home in treatment to facilitate healthy behavior change.  Married couples share obesity risk and behaviors. Spouses’ weights have been shown to be correlated at the start of marriage and follow a similar trajectory over time.  If one spouse becomes obese, the risk for the other spouse becoming obese increases by 37 percent according to researchers. Additionally, researchers reason if one spouse participates in weight loss treatment, the other untreated spouse often experiences modest weight loss. This ripple effect for both weight gain and weight loss highlights the intended (or unintended) impact spouses can have on each other’s weight and related behaviors.

The proposed research is innovative in that it will target married couples, not individuals, for weight loss and behavior change, it will have a clear, theory based definition of support, and will measure support subjectively through self-reporting and objectively through videotaped observations.

Breakdown of study:

  • Couples will be assessed at 0, 6, and 12 months.  All couples will receive 6 months of weekly weight loss group meetings and the same core information about diet and physical activity. 
  • Individuals with advanced degrees in nutrition, exercise physiology, or behavioral psychology and with experience delivering behavioral weight loss treatment will serve as interventionists. 
  • Each couple will be placed on a standard caloric and fat restricted diet consistent with published trials and industry recognized guidelines.
  • Each couple will be encouraged to gradually increase their physical activity until they are engaging in 60 minutes of moderate intensity activity on 5 days per week
  • The participants in the experimental condition will additionally receive training on how to provide needs support to their partners

couples workoutA narrow focus on the individual to the neglect of their larger social/interpersonal environment may be one reason current treatment programs consistently fail to produce long-term weight loss. Moving the focus of study from the individual to the married couple has the potential to improve weight loss outcomes and promote a healthier weight status in all family members. The couples approaches examined in this study have potential applications to the long-term maintenance of other important health behaviors.

‌The study proposes to develop and test a couples weight loss program that has the potential to improve weight loss outcomes for both members of the marital relationship.  The research looks to improve upon previous research by producing a clear conceptual framework guiding involvement of spouses in treatment, assessment, and analysis.

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