The dose makes the poison—even with exercise. While research has shown that physical activity can improve sexual function in men and women, you can have too much of a good thing.
According to Mary Claire Haver, MD, an OB-GYN at the University of Texas Medical Branch, exercise helps us build a better body image and relieve stress, both of which can boost sex drive. Additionally, physical activity can increase blood flow to your sexual organs in the short term and over time. Working out also provides a hit of testosterone, which studies have shown is associated with libido.
However, a recent study found that excessive exercise may lower your sex drive and harm sexual performance.
Here’s what the research says about the ways exercise can enhance our sex lives—and why too much of a good thing may lead to reduced sex drive.
Exercise enhances sexual function and libido
According to a study published in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion, exercise can be a great way to get your sex life back on track.
Research has shown that lower rates of physical activity and a rise in obesity have coincided with a jump in cases of sexual dysfunction. Men with a high body mass index have a 30% higher risk of erectile dysfunction and 40% of obese women report that they don’t enjoy sexual activity. In part, this may be due to negative body image.
In the study, researchers examined the sex lives and physical activity levels of a cohort of 133 healthy individuals, 91 of whom were women and 42 of whom were men. Research has shown that increased physical activity in men is linked to higher levels of testosterone, which boosts sexual desire and behavior. But in this study, researchers concluded that improvements in cardiovascular function can also help alleviate sexual dysfunction for men and women, increasing measures of pleasure, arousal, and orgasm for female subjects.
Likewise, a review published in Sexual Medicine Reviews found that exercise can have positive effects on women’s sex lives.
Acute exercise affects metabolic rate, muscle activation, and blood flow, and chronic exercise can improve physical performance and function. Researchers found that, following acute exercise, the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and endocrine factors appear to boost sexual arousal in women. Chronic exercise can result in autonomic flexibility, which can improve mood, and help cultivate a positive body image—both of which can enhance sexual enjoyment.
Too much of a good thing
However, recent research suggests there may be a tipping point where too much exercise stifles sex drive and pleasure.
In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers used a questionnaire to assess levels of physical activity, workout habits, and libido in 1,077 male subjects, to ascertain if endurance training had any impact on sex drive.
Interestingly, those who reported exercising at the lowest or mid-range intensities had a greater chance of being in the normal or high libido range. Likewise, those who tended to work out for shorter or mid-range durations were more likely to fall into the normal/high libido scores. Researchers concluded that “exposure to higher levels of chronic [intensity] and greater durations of endurance training on a regular basis is significantly associated with decreased libido scores in men.” Clinicians treating men for decreased sex drives, they noted, should consider their training schedule as a possible factor.
While the study was not designed to examine the mechanisms behind this decrease, past evidence has shown that men who exercise frequently can develop a corollary hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis condition known as the “exercise hypogonadal male condition.” The condition is characterized by a drop in levels of several hormones, including testosterone, which may explain reduced sex drives.
Excessive exercise can also result in fatigue, which may lower a subject’s desire for sex. Other possible factors include psychological disorders (like depression) and chronically low caloric intake.
Stay active, but don’t exhaust yourself
The takeaway here isn’t to avoid working out. Rather, if you want to boost sexual function through physical activity, the secret is to take time to find your sweet spot. Staying active and building up a sweat a few times a week is a surefire way to increase your libido, but don’t push it too far—save some energy for the bedroom.