The secret ingredient to Jay and Ann Freeman's weight loss success is a simple love potion that consists of their running shoes, their bikes and each other. The young St. Paul couple struggled for years to lose weight and stick with a healthy lifestyle, but one would always sabotage the other's progress.

"It's hard to be motivated when your partner is sitting on the couch, watching TV and eating chips and ice cream," said Ann, 27. 

When the Freemans finally decided to hit the gym as a team, the pounds started melting away. The result is more than 100 pounds of combined weight lost in just six months, a healthier, happier pair and a new mission to complete the 2012 Twin Cities Marathon -- together, of course.

A trip to the gym for a side-by-side workout is edging out candlelight dinners as a way for some area couples to spend quality time together and expend some calories. According to a recent Indiana University study, couples who exercise together are 34 percent more likely to show up for

workouts than those who work out apart. Several other studies have found that those couples also exercise more often and stick with their regimens longer than their single counterparts do.

"When couples work out together, it's a symbiotic relationship," said Steve Zahn, a personal trainer at Lifetime Fitness in St. Paul. "When one struggles, so does the other. They are entirely dependent on each other for success."

Working out with a partner not only improves the chances of reaching fitness goals, but also is good for the relationship.

"It is a way of physically sharing an experience with each other, an often refreshing and much needed alternative to more verbal means of connecting, allowing couples to just be with each other," said Wendy Whelihan, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Edina.

And let's not forget the obvious benefits that exercise brings to a couple's sex life. "Exercising together is a way to be engaged in a real way and step away and be unplugged," said Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "Research shows it can improve sexual health, as well."

Working out with a significant other isn't for everyone, however. Fitness experts and psychologists say it's important to find something that both people like to do.

Debbie Ward-Baker and her longtime husband, Peter Baker, used to go inline skating together at the Metrodome, but Ward-Baker says her husband only went to make her happy. The Minneapolis couple, both in their 50s, needed a change of pace and have since found that taking jabs at each other in the boxing ring is both energizing and therapeutic. They spar, kick and punch together two or three times a week at Uppercut Boxing Gym in northeast Minneapolis.

"It's a whole other aspect of time we don't normally spend together," she said. "We sweat a lot and we laugh a lot. Plus, it's kind of fun to throw each other around a little bit."

If couples aren't careful, however, their mission to get fit together can backfire. Whelihan, Zahn and LaVoi offer these tips to achieve success:

• Try to limit any tendency to compare and compete -- keep it light and playful.

• Don't judge or manage your partner's progress. Don't say things like, "You haven't worked out for three days, don't you think you should?" Or, "You'd burn more calories if you stood upright on the elliptical machine." Unless your partner is asking for your opinion, keep evaluative comments to yourself.

• Even if you're at different fitness levels, you can work out in harmony. Consider spinning, yoga and even bowling.

• Be encouraging and flexible.

If you can't do these things, it may be better to work out separately.

But what's a couple to do when they have children and are short on time? Minneapolis parents Laurie and Tony Kocanda did most of their workouts together before they had two children, and while they have to do more solo exercise now, they still manage to fit in a shared weekly run, ski or snowshoe, and take an annual running trip to places like Lake Tahoe, Colorado and the Grand Canyon.

"No matter what is going on in our lives, working out together is one sure way we have of reconnecting," said Kocanda, who shares her tips in a book she co-authored: "Hot (Sweaty) Mamas: Five Secrets to Life as a Fit Mom."

"There's something about sweat that brings us closer to each other, makes us open up and instantly connect," she said. "It's great for us as a couple and it's also great for our kids to see."

Aimée Tjader • 612-673-1715