So, the really big question: Does exercise affect sex?
It depends on who you ask. Recently, a study came out that warned guys of the risk to their sex drive if they do too much physical activity. The study found that men who exercise strenuously may have a lower libido than those whose workouts are lighter.
The key words here are may and strenuous. Complications arose when men were exposed to higher levels of chronic intense and greater durations of endurance training on a regular basis. But the majority of people do not consistently exercise at this level, right? So it’s important to read the study and understand if what they analyzed describes you.
Because for most fitness enthusiasts, continuing to exercise on a regular basis does help with intimate relationships and contribute to a healthy sex life. “Exercise is extremely beneficial to sexual desire, performance, and satisfaction, says Lawrence Siegel, MA, CSE, AASECT, a Clinical Sexologist.
“Since sexual function involves more physiological, psychological, and emotional processes than most other human experiences, the closer to optimum levels we are in each state, the greater our sexual experiences,” he says. And since exercise is one of the few things that can help in ALL areas, it is an essential element to achieving those optimum levels of performance and satisfaction (or at least helping one get a bit closer).
What does exercise have to do with sex?
Siegel says exercise, in general, can significantly help achieve better sleep and reduced stress, both of which are important to emotional well being. And if you happen to be one of the millions of people taking an anti-depressant medication, “engaging in exercise is often recommended as a way of overcoming or reducing the negative sexual side effects of these medications, especially in women,” he explains. In fact, research from the University of Texas at Austin found that exercise increases genital arousal in healthy women, likely due to increasing sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity.
In addition to engaging in daily exercise such as strength training and cardiovascular activities, Siegel also recommends yoga. “Yoga has been shown to provide significant improvement in sexual arousal in women with metabolic syndrome (often a precursor diagnosis to cardiovascular disease and diabetes; related to obesity, lack of activity, and pre-diabetes) and post-menopausal women,” he explains. And for men, “yoga has also been shown to help with erectile dysfunction and rapid (premature) ejaculation, especially when it involves strengthening and opening one’s core and pelvic region,” Siegel adds.
And don’t think you’re going to get through an article on sex without talking about Kegels. Yup, that’s right—those dreaded exercises women are told to practice while waiting at a stop light, sitting in their chair at work, or basically anywhere they can, actually do help with sexual performance—and they are not just beneficial to women. Siegel says by strengthening the pelvic floor muscles, particularly the pubococcygeus or PC muscle, both men and women have reported increases in frequency and intensity of orgasms and the feeling that they have more control. “Women have long reported increased vaginal sensation and sensitivity but there is preliminary evidence to show that Kegel exercises may be very helpful in treating erectile dysfunction, or ED and rapid ejaculation in men,” he adds.
And just in case you need one more reason to be active, both sexually and via exercise, Siegel says that in addition to centuries of anecdotal evidence, there is growing empirical data to support the connection between exercise and well being. “Numerous studies have established strong correlations between moderate exercise and help in relieving depression and anxiety, in addition to improvements in sexual arousal and enjoyment.”
What about nutrition?
We can’t talk about a body being in balance without mentioning food. And according to Siegel, there are a number of nutritional changes people can make to improve sexual desire and arousal. He believes that overall, it’s less about finding specific foods that will increase libido, usually referred to as “aphrodisiacs,” than it is to develop good nutritional strategies.
Siegel says a pro-sexual diet should be based on eating lots of legumes, whole-grain products and other complex carbohydrates, as well as a good amount of nuts, fruits and vegetables. “In particular, cruciferous vegetables like brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli, as well as green leafy vegetables are best, but carrots, beets, garlic, ginger, and avocado are also list toppers, he explains.
These vegetables contain phytonutrients and other substances, such as antioxidants, polyphenols and vitamins, that reduce inflammation and improve metabolic function. “For men, these nutrients have been shown to help prevent BPH, or enlarged prostate, a condition often related to erectile dysfunction and ejaculatory problems,” says Siegel. Other nutrients like vitamin E, nitrates, lycopene, folate, and riboflavin are all helpful at improving sexual health.
“With regard to fruits, it’s hard to go wrong,” says Seigel. Of particular interest are watermelon, papaya, and citrus (go vitamin C!). Lemon should also be on your list because of its ability to decrease acidity in the body. To keep it simple, Siegel says “for the most part, if it’s good for your heart, it’s good for sex!”
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness.