Regardless of your marital status, you've probably heard about or read one of the countless studies showing the health benefits of marriage.
Overall, research indicates that married people are healthier than those who are divorced, widowed, never married or cohabitating. Happily married couples, in particular, may have lower stress levels, better sleep quality and even the upper hand when it comes to aging well and living longer, among other factors.
So what are singles doing wrong?
The question isn't entirely easy to answer, mostly because the reasons why marriage may provide a positive health effect aren't completely clear--though much of it is likely due to the benefits of social support. And not all singles are alike when it comes to nutrition and exercise due to varying ages and personal situations: A 20-something single may be working 60-hour weeks and hitting bars instead of the gym, while a single parent may be struggling to get dinner on the table, let alone a low-fat, vitamin-rich one. But health experts say that, as a group, singles may have one thing in common.
"You don't take as good a care of yourself when it's just you as when there's somebody else around," says Karen Miller-Kovach, a registered dietitian and chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International. "I don't think that many people with a spouse and family will pull out a bag of Doritos and say, 'Here's dinner,' whereas if you're single, after a long day, you might."
Plan For Healthy Eating
To prevent this nutrition-lacking scenario, singles need to plan. That means buying chicken or lean ground meat and dividing it into portions, freezing what you don't need right away, Miller-Kovach says. Cooking meals for the week on Sundays will help singles, especially parents, avoid at least a few nights of oily Chinese takeout. If you live alone and you're tired of buying family-sized portions of fruits and vegetables that you never finish, hit the grocery store's salad bar and dish out only what you need.
Singles also have to stock their pantries and fridges with healthy convenience foods that will make it easy to create low-fat feasts. Jim White, a Virginia Beach, Va.,-based spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and owner of Jim White Fitness, suggests keeping fat-free shredded cheese, salsa and Triscuits on hand for instant healthy nachos. Romaine lettuce--a great source of vitamin A, vitamin C and folate--is the perfect bed for a defrosted, pan-grilled turkey burger. And try using Portobello mushroom caps, instead of an English muffin or store-bought crust, as the base for mini pizzas.
Beyond what's on your plate, there's something to the way you eat it, says Dr. Richard Liebowitz, vice president of medical affairs for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and a specialist with Everydayhealth.com. While the Mediterranean Diet is believed to improve heart health because of its high content of fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and whole grains, there's a social component to it too. The people of Crete, Greece and southern Italy, whose traditional eating habits are the basis for the diet, treat dinner as a communal event, not a timed one.
"When there's no social event around it, dinner is just another chore you need to get out of the way," Liebowitz says.
To break the habit of shoveling down your food and start enjoying the experience of eating, try to invite more friends over for meals or head to a restaurant by yourself. (Bring a book if you feel self conscious.) If you hate eating alone, a growing number of Web sites, such as meetup.com, can help you connect with a group in your city for dinner or cocktails.
Stay Social, Skip The Drinks
While single people, with the exception of parents, tend to have time to exercise, their social lives can sometimes get in the way. But hanging out in bars doesn't mean you have to veer away from your healthy diet. For years, White says he would go out with friends and order water instead of a beer to avoid feeling lousy that night as well as the next morning. His buddies often gave him a hard time but he didn't let it bother him. White also counsels single clients to skip the typical dinner-and-a-movie date in favor of something more physical.
Marley Oldham, a 21-year-old senior at Texas A&M University who trained with White this summer, recently gave the technique a try by going on a first date with a friend at First Landing State Park in Virginia. Instead of staring at a movie screen and eating a bucket of calorie-laden popcorn, the two hiked trails and relaxed.
"I wasn't too focused on how I looked or what he was thinking," Oldham says. "We were just enjoying the activity."
More time-strapped single parents can get moving by sneaking exercise into a family activity. Shirley Archer, the newly named IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and author of Fitness 9 to 5, suggests a group bike ride. Or, like Archer, you can get creative and patch together a circuit training program in your backyard. Hers consists of pool tethers, a jump rope, hand weights, an exercise bike, a jogging in-place station and a mat or stability ball for abdominal crunches. Archer's stepchildren, ages 7, 12 and 15, use it frequently.
Whatever method you choose, the important thing is to make your health a priority now. The stronger a single's commitment to healthy habits, Archer says, the more likely he or she is to stick with them--a plus, regardless of marital status.