For decades, sports physiologists pondered the following question: does sex, especially the night before a big competition, hinder athletic performance? While the answer might be of interest to coaches and Olympiads trolling the Beijing streets the night before their long jump, it has little relevance for the rest of us, who aren’t competitive athletes. A recreational runner or pick-up basketball player isn’t likely to be setting world records. They are, however, likely to be having (or wanting to have) sex. Therefore, a more relevant question for the masses is the corollary: how does exercise affect your sex life?
Now Bend Over and Touch Your …
Not surprisingly, research indicates that exercisers have more and better sex than couch potatoes. The agility and flexibility garnered during sports can help during sex, an athletic endeavor in its own right. But exercise has implications beyond just the physical. It affects our mental, emotional, and psychological state of being; this in turn positively affects our sex lives.
One benefit of exercise has to do with perceived body image. A 2004 study published in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality questioned 400 college students and found that regular exercisers had higher levels of self-confidence, perceived themselves to be more sexually desirable, and had higher levels of sexual satisfaction than their non-exercising peers. Feeling sexy can help stimulate sexual desire, so it makes sense that those with improved body image would be inclined towards more sex.
Exercisers also tend to be more aware of their bodies and feel more comfortable with them. And because exercise can reduce stress and elevate mood, it helps us relax—all attributes which help out in the bedroom.
Similarly, physically active people rate their own sexual performance higher than sedentary peers. This could be because of perceived body image or increased self confidence (or narcissism), but also because of improved muscle tone, endurance, or body composition.
The benefits of exercise aren’t just reserved for those in their youth, who tend to be both healthier and hornier than older populations. A Harvard University study looked at 160 swimmers in their 40s and 60s and found a positive relationship between regular exercise and sexual satisfaction and frequency. Swimmers in their 60s reported sex lives comparable to those in their 40s, indicating that if you move it, you don’t have to lose it.
And exercise-induced good sex isn’t just for those already on the team. A study from the Archives of Sexual Behavior showed that previously inactive men who participated in three to five hour-long workouts a week had significantly improved sex lives.
Pump It Up
In addition to feeling good, moving around helps keep our sexual parts running like well-oiled machines. Exercise activates the sympathetic nervous system, which increases blood flow to the genital region. A 2003 study found that women were more sexually responsive following 20 minutes of cycling. Not only did exercise increase arousal, but it also seemed to prime the pump: The women were able to get aroused quicker after exercise.
And one of the biggest bedroom problems for older men—erectile dysfunction—can be greatly improved with exercise.
ED is a problem of blood flow to the penis, so exercise, which improves cardiovascular health, can also reduce impotence problems. A 2000 study published in the journal Urology followed 600 men for nine years and found that men who maintained or started exercising in middle age reduced their risk of impotence compared to sedentary men. A 2003 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine had similar results, showing that active men had a 30 percent lower risk of impotence than men who were inactive. And those already experiencing ED can possibly improve their situation with exercise. A 2004 study published in Journal of the American Medical Association found that regular exercise and reduced calorie diets improved ED in obese men. Though certainly the makers of Viagra don’t want to hear it, getting the heart pumping may get you off the blue pills.
Hard, but Not Too Hard
Yet, as someone who is in the midst of training for a half Ironman triathlon, it seems there is an obvious drawback to clocking numerous hours of athletics—when you hit the hay, sometimes sleep, not sex, takes precedence. And in fact, overtraining can reduce sexual desire and testosterone levels. But let’s face it, most Americans aren’t overtraining; the majority of people don’t even get the recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day.
And most of us, even those who do train a lot, would like to get both sleep and sex. But if you had to vie for one, which would it be? This takes us back to the original question: For the competitive athlete or the recreational competitor, does having sex before an event boost or bust our game day showing?
An Extended Warm-Up
For decades, the common theory was that abstaining from sex before a big event is a good idea. Muhammad Ali supposedly went so far as to abstain for weeks before big matches. Sexual frustration was thought to increase aggressiveness, especially important in power sports like boxing.
But remember Bob Beamon, the long jumper? The only time he supposedly had sex before an event was in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when he destroyed the world record in the long jump by feet—not inches—and won the gold medal. So, who’s right?
Anecdotal accounts will support either theory, but research indicates that Beamon’s method is the best. Italian researchers have shown that sex actually increases testosterone levels, which can presumably help with game day aggression.
Research also indicates that sex can stimulate a pain-blocking chemical in women, the results of which can last for days.
Another small study done in recreational marathoners showed that athletic performance didn’t vary depending on whether the athletes had sex in the previous two days, but rather their caloric intake and amount of sleep.
Why Don’t We Do It in the Gym
Having sex won’t necessarily increase performance, but it can’t hurt either, unless it’s hours of sleep you’re sacrificing to do the deed. Sex can help you relax, which might help you get a good’s night rest before a big event. Or sex might just help you reach a desired goal for the evening—climax.
Exercise isn’t the cure all for sex-related problems, nor is sex the problem for your poor athletic performing. But one this is for sure: Exercise and sex are beneficial to, and beneficiaries of, each other. My running shoes never looked so hot.