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My Husband/My Rival: Marriage as a Fitness Challenge

Throw down the gauntlet and you'll both win. Patricia Hawkins reports on one way to stay healthy as you age.

It’s not your usual couples activity, by any means. “Let’s get our blood pressure taken,” my husband Brian proposed when he saw the table for free health screenings set up in the grocery store several months ago.  I should have known something was up. He said this the same way he might say, “Let’s see a movie,” as if getting a bicep squeeze from a piece of plastic was a normal form of entertainment.

For us, aging was becoming a competitive sport.

We were at the store to pick up a few items after our morning swim; my hair was still wet and my muscles a bit boiled-spaghetti-ish. After I’d turned over my arm to the technician and received the results, Brian looked positively gleeful. His blood pressure and resting heart rate were significantly lower. “Looks like I’m recovering faster from the swim,” he crowed as he gently tapped my shoulder with his fist.

I could almost hear the gauntlet falling on the polyurethane-sealed concrete floor. In that moment, I realized something that had been going on since we hit our 50s but we’d never fully acknowledged before. For us, aging was becoming a competitive sport.

Over our 25 years of marriage, Brian and I have always been cutthroat at games. We love cards, and lately we’ve started out every morning playing the best two out of three gin rummy games. The way we go after each other—it’s with a hung head that I confess to occasionally throwing cards—you’d think much more was at stake than silly bragging rights for the day. We also square off in pool, bocce, horseshoes, and most anything where points can be scored—though for safety reasons we’ve made a pact to stay away from darts.

Read More: How an E-bike Rocked My World and Made Fitness Fun Again

Competitive Marriage Gets You to the Gym

In the past few years, we’ve both grown more focused on our health—more committed to exercise and more obsessed about our diets. Then, true to my nature, I began to compare and contrast to see how I was measuring up. Silently, though. For instance, he gets up at 5 a.m. and either swims or takes a spin class. Soon I began to feel I couldn’t miss a day that he’d worked out. I mean, if he could get up that early, I had no excuse for not getting my behind to the gym at 8:30. If I did beg off, I felt like a wimp, a big loser that day. He wouldn’t say anything, but by now, I know his holier-than-thou look when I see it.

The way we go after each other—it’s with a hung head that I confess to occasionally throwing cards—you’d think much more was at stake than silly bragging rights for the day.

On Saturdays, when we do laps together, I noticed I was swimming faster than on other days when I was in the pool alone. I knew I could never beat him (I grudgingly accept there’s a difference between the muscle power of a man and a woman), but I was determined to reduce his wait time, that stretch when he was out of the pool and tapping his fingers while I finished the last of my laps. I consider it my own private victory if I can finish before he’s barely had time to change out of his Speedo. Another triumph: I just logged 2,000 yards of swimming in a workout with a Master’s Swim program. That’s about 300 yards more than Brian swims at one time. You bet I gloated.

No One Wants to Cry Uncle

But the bloody standoff in the grocery store felt like we’d stepped up to the major leagues, with potentially major side effects. From here, it would be easy to stray into the obnoxious (“I ate 10 fewer calories than you did today”) or the downright deflating (“Your belly roll is bigger than mine”).

The idea that Brian could say he had stronger will power—that was like a gun to my head.

I warned Brian to take it easy. “Come on,” he responded. “What’s wrong with a little competition? It helped during the cleanse.” A few years earlier we had done a cleanse together, which required us to cut out sugar, meat, caffeine, gluten, alcohol, and dairy (basically anything that makes life worth living) for three weeks. At several points, we were tempted to chuck the kale for a red-blooded burger, but neither of us dared be the first to cry uncle. “If we weren’t checking each other,” Brian went on, “we might have fallen off the wagon.” I saw his point. The long-term goal of the cleanse—establishing healthier eating habits—was powerful, but probably would not have been strong enough to ward off my overwhelming urge to knock over a Dunkin Donuts by week two. But knowing that one crumb of glazed goodness would mean Brian had a stronger will than me—that was like a gun to my head.

A Competitive Marriage Keeps You Young

“You’ve got to keep it fun,” my mother says. “Competition concentrates the mind.” And she should know. She and my dad are both 87, and they’ve had a competitive streak ever since they were in eighth grade and my mother was number one in the class. But at her age, she recognizes a more serious side. “As you get older, you don’t want to be the one who can’t keep up, who becomes the burden to the other and hampers their lifestyle,” she says. “Then you both lose.”

“As you get older, you don’t want to be the one who can’t keep up, who becomes the burden to the other,” my mother says. “Then you both lose.”

So far they’ve kept up with each other just fine. They still bike and hike together and occasionally razz each other. When my mother had hip replacement surgery soon after my father’s exact same operation, she let her kids know that she was up and walking quicker than Dad had been. When I asked if she wasn’t being hard on Dad, she laughed. “If we didn’t try to outdo each other,” she said, “we might not be here now!” (See where I get it.)

While so many of their friends have passed on, my parents still have a good time together—traveling to see grandchildren and great-grandchildren, dancing like fools at weddings, walking on the beach hand-in-hand like they’re in a Hallmark card. With them in mind, I can only think of three words to say when Brian starts talking about who works out more or eats smarter or gets a better check up at the doctor’s: Bring it on!

Read More: Not Too Late: Getting in the Best Shape of Your Life After 50

By Patricia Hawkins


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