Regular physical activity is known to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and other serious diseases. Often overlooked, though, is the potential for exercise to boost one's sex life.
In men, regular physical activity offers protection against erectile dysfunction and may even be helpful in reversing it. A 1990 randomized trial found that men who participated in a vigorous exercise program had more frequent sex, improved erectile function and more satisfying orgasms than men in the control group, whose activity levels changed very little.
More recent clinical trials showed that similar benefits may extend not only to healthy men, but also to men with obesity and chronic heart failure. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004, researchers found that nearly one-third of obese men who already had erectile dysfunction were able to substantially improve their sexual function through a program of diet and exercise.
Although comparable trials have not been carried out in women, surveys of premenopausal and postmenopausal women have found links between physical activity and better sexual function.
Increased blood flow
Laboratory studies also show that exercise just before sexual stimulation can improve blood flow to the genitals, which may enhance sexual arousal and orgasm. Women who take certain types of common antidepressants (serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) often notice decreased feelings of sexual desire and sexual arousal and sometimes have problems reaching orgasm.
Can exercise benefit these women as well?
Yes, say Tierney Lorenz, a doctoral candidate, and Cindy Meston, Ph.D., professor of psychology, both at the University of Texas at Austin. In a study published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the researchers found that 20 minutes of vigorous treadmill exercise just before sexual stimulation enhanced blood flow responses measured in a laboratory.
In a follow-up study, not yet published, Lorenz found that these benefits of exercise translate to real-life benefits for women who take antidepressants. Women on antidepressants who exercised vigorously three times per week showed overall improvement in their sexual function. Certain groups of women especially benefitted from exercising shortly before sexual activity.
Improve mood and body image
The benefits of exercise include not only better blood flow but also improved mood, better body image, and stress reduction -- all of which can also affect sexual function and satisfaction. Although studies of exercise and sexual function have not included cancer survivors, there are good reasons to believe that many cancer survivors can enjoy similar benefits.