There’s really nothing better for your health than exercise — and that applies to your sex life’s health too.
“Men and women who are healthy tend to have better sexual function,” said Dr. Lauren Streicher, the medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine. “Because almost any medical illness can impact normal sexual response.”
Aerobic exercise is especially good at improving cardiovascular fitness, which stimulates blood flow throughout the body, including the genital area.
“Anything that supports the cardiovascular system is going to support a man or woman’s sexual response,” said sex therapist and educator Laura Berman. “The healthier your blood flow, the better your arousal.”
In women, blood flow is “crucial,” said Berman, “because it’s the fundamental component that creates lubrication. So better blood flow helps with engorgement, sensation and lubrication in women as well as erections in men.”
Just how much exercise is needed to keep you healthy? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week. Brisk walking or light biking are two examples of moderate exercise; vigorous movement would be jogging, fast cycling or participating in a basketball or soccer game.
Now, a new study published in the August volume of the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests higher levels of aerobic exercise may further improve sexual performance, stamina and desire in active men and women.
“What’s interesting is that we found a dose relationship … in that more exercise, especially in women, resulted in more benefit,” said lead author Dr. Benjamin Breyer, chief of urology at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.
Participants were recruited from running, swimming and bicycling clubs, Breyer said, so they were all amateur athletes who were “really active, really interested in sports.”
“This is a special cohort of people,” Breyer said, “so it’s not the average person. This is a pretty physically fit group.”
Men who ran a 7-minute mile pace for 4½ hours per week saw a 23% reduced odds of erectile dysfunction.
But the results were even more striking for women. Running the same 7-minute mile pace for only 4 hours a week was associated with a 30% reduced odds of female sexual dysfunction.
“Women who were the most fit reported the least sexual dysfunction,” Breyer said. “They had the least difficulties with arousal, the least orgasm dysfunction.”
Breyer points out that the study was only exploratory, as it was conducted online and relied on self-reported levels of exercise and sexual dysfunction.
“We can’t conclusively say that one causes the other,” Breyer said, especially since so many things can also impact sexual satisfaction, such as self-esteem, good sleep and the quality of a relationship.
What about us couch potatoes?
So, does this exploratory study apply to the majority of us who are … ahem… a bit less fit? Perhaps, experts say.
In one study, sedentary middle-aged men assigned to participate in a vigorous exercise program for nine months reported more frequent sexual activity, improved sexual function, and greater satisfaction,” said Campbell. “Those whose fitness levels increased most saw the biggest improvements in their sex lives.”
But that doesn’t mean everyone should start high intensity training, Campbell cautioned, especially without a doctor’s advice.
“The study shows us that there is an association, but we do not exactly know if ‘more is better,’ ” Campbell said.
“Do you need good cardiovascular health in order to have an orgasm? Yes. In order to have arousal? Yes, because you need good blood vessels,” said Streicher. But she stresses that if a woman has painful sex or can’t have an orgasm, that’s not likely to be fixed by more exercise.
“If you have a specific sexual problem, the solution is not to exercise,” Streicher said. “The solution is to see someone who is an expert in that so that you can get the help you need.”