Sex and Exercise

Consider, for a moment, the similarities between working out and sex. They both get you sweaty and revved up. They both make you breathe hard. They both induce a delicious afterglow. Granted, in other ways they could be considered polar opposites — exemplars of the agony and ecstasy of physical experience. But, it turns out, the two are more intimately connected than anyone quite imagined.

In some of the first laboratory studies to look at exercise and female sexual response, a researcher has found that vigorous physical exercise appears to “prime” a woman’s body for sexual arousal. In the studies, says lead author Cindy Meston, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, the same group of women, on two different occasions, watched two films — first a travel film, then an erotic film.

On the second occasion, the women had just finished 20 minutes of intense aerobic activity (stationary biking). Meston used subjective assessments (asking the women to rate their arousal level) as well as objective methods (measuring blood flow to the genital region) and found that after exercise, arousal levels were significantly heightened. This doesn’t mean your step-aerobics class will induce orgasm. “It wasn’t that the exercise itself was making the women in the study sexually aroused, or increasing genital blood flow,” says Meston. “Rather, exercise prepared the body in some way for a sexual response.

So when the women were then put into a sexual situation, in this case, watching an erotic film, their bodies responded more quickly and intensely than when they hadn’t exercised.” More sex, better sex Meston’s research is the first to look specifically at sexual responses to exercise in women, and her results have been a surprise because they go counter to long-held assumptions about sexual functioning — assumptions that were based on what happens in men. “Research in men shows that anxiety is the leading cause of erectile failure,” says Meston. “So it’s been thought for a long time that when you activate the nervous system through drugs or things like anxiety, you would impair sexual functioning.

Thus, treatments for sexual difficulties have almost always included trying to induce a state of relaxation.” Meston’s work shows it is that nervous-system activation itself that induces heightened sexual response.

More lifestyle-oriented research is beginning to show the same connection between exercise and sex, even in men. One study, from the Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that previously inactive men who began exercising aerobically three to five days a week for an hour each time reported significantly improved sex lives: more sex, better sex.

All of which makes sense — for reasons that may go beyond physiology, comments Patricia Esperon, M.S.W., a behavior therapist at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, where she runs sexuality workshops. “There certainly have been studies showing that self-esteem improves with exercise.” Esperon says. “When people exercise, they are taking action, feeling less helpless. And feeling better about yourself in general is a big part of feeling sexual.” Esperon also feels that shame about one’s body — whether overweight or not — is widespread, and that it leads to a sense of detachment from one’s physical self. “When you start exercising,” she says, “You reconnect with your physical self — which has needs and desires, which feels pleasure and pain, which is real. You start feeling sexual again.” There is a potential downside that some people experience with exercise, however, that has showed up in a few studies: Some regular exercisers feel more judgmental about their bodies and that their self-esteem is more tied to their physical attractiveness. What’s unclear is which feelings came first: Perhaps they became regular exercisers because they were looks-oriented to begin with.

Do something arousing Intuitively, it’s not surprising that working out heightens sexuality. There has always been something sexy about muscles; for one thing, they remind us that we are, at base, animals — at our best when we’re sleek and strong. Michelangelo knew this about David, but we hadn’t figured that out about women until recently. Madonna, Demi, even Princess Diana, changed that with their defined delts, abs and quads.

In fact, Meston’s research suggests that women respond sexually in what has traditionally been considered a masculine way. “For years,” says Meston, “women who had problems with sex drive, arousal or orgasm have been told to relax, take a bubble bath. My research suggests that from a purely physiological viewpoint the opposite is true: Women should do something arousing, like exercise.

This may explain why many couples say they have the best sex after a good fight: They’re all revved up.” How long will your arousal last? Psychologist Cindy Meston’s research has measured the effects of exercise on sexual response at varying intervals post-workout. She found a minimal effect after five minutes (probably because the body was still so busy supplying blood to the worked-out muscles) and a substantial effect at both 15 and 30. She has not yet looked at what happens later, but speculates that residual effects will continue much longer — perhaps even chronically“As long as there’s some residual nervous-system activation, that would help facilitate sexual response,” says Meston.

“Exercise enhances blood flow throughout the body.” The physiology of sex and exercise comes down to the most basic of life’s functions: Physical activity improves blood flow, which facilitates all of those intricate sexual responses. But in a larger sense, exercise makes you a finer animal, a better-tooled machine: flexible, strong, buffed. Your head then says: I feel good in this skin. “Confidence,” says Esperon, “has a tremendous amount to do with feeling sexual.” Time to renew that gym membership?

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