Many people know exercise is important for good physical health, even if they personally don’t work out on a regular basis. But you may not realize being fit is also crucial for your sexual health.
Forty-three percent of women and 31% of men have some form of sexual dysfunction, with obesity and a lack of exercise often being factors, according to the National Institutes of Health. A study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found men with either a high waist circumference or elevated BMI were 50% more likely to have erectile dysfunction, while approximately half of obese women reported problems with sexual activity, desire and performance, at least some of the time, in a study published in Obesity.
Women who exercised up to six hours per week, in contrast, showed lower sexual distress and resistance in their clitoral arteries compared to women who did not exercise, according to a 2021 study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. The exercisers also showed significantly higher levels of desire, arousal, lubrication and orgasm.
“This is truly a medical issue we should be dealing with as part of someone’s overall health and well-being,” said Dr. Karyn Eilber, a urologist at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a sexual wellness expert. “But there’s still a stigma around the topic.”
There shouldn’t be, said Eilber and other experts. Sex is a critical part of being human, and its significance is not just to procreate. Quality sexual activity has a major impact on your mental and emotional health, your quality of life and the strength of your intimate relationships. A series of studies backs this up, indicating sex and affectionate touch are critical for multiple aspects of well-being, such as feeling understood, cared for and accepted.
Here’s what else happens to your body and mind when you exercise regularly.
Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.
Your circulation gets a boost
All aerobic exercise increases your circulation, or blood flow, and helps ensure a healthy circulatory system. And a strong, smooth blood flow is key for arousal. In men, it aids in erections, and in women, it’s instrumental in vaginal lubrication and clitoral sensation.
Your endurance increases
When you’re working out regularly, you develop more endurance. That’s important for your sexual health, because having sex is in itself a workout. The Mayo Clinic compares a bout of sexual intercourse to climbing two or three flights of stairs. And a study by the National Institutes of Health says a half-hour of sexual activity can burn 125 calories for men and nearly 100 for women, similar to walking at a 3 mile-per-hour pace.
You become more confidant
Once you establish a routine exercise regimen, you feel fitter and leaner. This, in turn, improves self-esteem. “Nothing is sexier than self-confidence,” Eilber said. Indeed, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Personality found women had more romantic interest in men with higher social confidence, whether that confidence was innate or trained.
Your stress levels decrease
Being stressed, anxious or depressed can dampen your libido. Depression in particular is often related to problems with sexual functioning, and the more severe the depression, the worse the problems, according to a 2018 study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. The study found this is especially true when it comes to sexual desire and satisfaction.
Luckily, exercise is great at combating stress, anxiety and depression, which can translate into a revived sex drive. Antidepressants are also notorious for negatively affecting your libido, Eilber said, so if exercising can help you lower your dosage or scrap them altogether, all the better.
Your overall health improves
Adopt a regular exercise program, and your general health will improve. Working out may even help you stave off serious conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, which sometimes require medications that inhibit arousal. These two medical conditions also can damage the tiny arteries in the penis, resulting in erectile dysfunction. In fact, erectile dysfunction is often one of the first noticeable side effects of high blood pressure and diabetes.
How much exercise is necessary to improve your sexual health? It all depends on the person, so it’s best to check with your physician. Experts say even short periods of exercise, such as regular brisk walks, can improve your sexual well-being. You do have to be careful not to overdo it, though.
If you still aren’t convinced it’s time to grab your sneakers and start moving, consider this warning from Eilber. “There is something to that phrase, ‘Use it or lose it,’” she said. “Your pelvic organs are like any other body part. If you don’t use them, you’ll lose function.”
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specializes in hiking, travel and fitness.