How Being an Athlete (or Working Out Like One) Can Impact Your Sex Life
Experts break down the good and bad of what it can do to your sex drive, sexual performance, and mental states surrounding sex.
You've probably noticed how exercise has the power to transform your body—but did you know exercise can have significant effects on your sex life as well?
Depending on how often you work out, for how long, and at what intensity, exercising can either have positive or negative consequences on your libido, your pelvic floor, and your mental state (which, ICYDK, is a huge part of your sex life). Here's what you need to know.
The Potential Negative Effects
Let's start off with the bad-ish news. Working out can actually have some negative effects your sexual health.
Hormones and Female Athlete Triad
You may have heard of the female athlete triad (or FAT) in relation to elite athletes who stop getting their period.
"The female-athlete triad involves the interrelatedness of menstrual dysfunction, poor energy availability, and bone mineral density effects," as a result of consistent high-intensity exercise, says Kecia Gaither, M.D., M.P.H., double board-certified in ob-gyn and maternal-fetal medicine, director of perinatal services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln. Basically, the FAT includes three main side effects: a lack of energy, menstrual irregularities, and/or bone deficiencies, and you can develop it as a result of working out too much or not consuming sufficient nutrients.
That's because certain hormones fluctuate with regular intense physical activity. For example, intense exercise often causes a decrease in estrogen and progesterone, which can lead to reduced libido or lubrication in women. Moderate exercise can increase testosterone, thus boosting your libido, but overtraining (which is when you do more activity than your body can recover from, causing a decline in performance) can also decrease testosterone levels, "causing a decline in sex drive in athletes both immediately and over the long term," says Emily Spicer, a certified health coach, personal trainer, and mind-body specialist.
When it comes to having a better sexual experience, for women, it's all about the pelvic floor muscles. "Your clitoris runs along the pelvic floor muscles," explains MaryEllen Reider, pelvic floor expert and co-founder of the Yarlap kegel device. "So, the stronger your pelvic floor muscles are, the stronger your response to orgasm." (See: Why Everyone Should Care About Their Pelvic Floor Muscles)
The good news: Regular exercise can strengthen your pelvic floor, says Reider. But exercising a ton or being an elite athlete can also mean your pelvic floor lacks flexibility (aka becomes too tight), "leading to painful sex and decreased sensitivity for optimal orgasm," adds Nicole Buratti, LCCE, a certified pelvic floor specialist and creator of Sex Talk with Nicole.
Athletes have a high rate of urinary incontinence because repetitive motions like running or jumping can put a lot of stress on your pelvic floor, which plays a huge part in controlling your pee, says Reider. (Here's what you need to know about bladder leakage during exercise.)
She claims that urinary incontinence is so stigmatized, it could even lead to depression, postpartum depression, anxiety, and sexual dysfunction (which refers to difficulty during any stage of normal sexual activity, including pleasure, desire, preference, arousal, or orgasm). "No one talks about it because we've deemed vaginas and pelvic floor issues as 'inappropriate' to talk about," she says.
Kegels can help strengthen pelvic floor muscles if you experience bladder or sexual dysfunction as a result of weak a pelvic floor, she suggests; however, your best bet is to talk to your doc if you experience either, since they can help determine whether your problem is muscles that are too tight or too weak.
You may have heard that some athletes abstain from sex or masturbation before a competition in order to gain a performance edge. In reality, research shows mixed results about whether it's a good or bad idea to engage in sexual activity (of any kind) before competing.
"One study which surveyed runners who ran the London Marathon found that runners who had sex the night before ran on average five minutes faster than those who abstained from sex," says Angela Watson, sex therapist at Doctor Climax. "However, there seems to be more evidence suggesting that having sex shortly before the competition could limit athletic performance."
Having sex leading up to a race shouldn't really have a negative impact on a competitor's performance, but it's hard to say whether this correlation equals causation, she says. The good news? Unless you're chasing a competitive PR or gunning for a medal, you probably don't have much to lose by having sex before a race or game.
A long day at work or lack of sleep might keep you from being in the mood—and a rigorous training schedule can have the same effect, says Caleb Backe, a certified trainer with Maple Holistics. Backe frequently works with athletes who train twice a day, five days a week who report having a high sex drive, but whose physical exhaustion level is so high that most of them don't want to act on it. Indeed, training for more than 20 hours per week is one factor associated with a higher risk of sexual dysfunction, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.
If you're overtraining, overworked, stressed, or physically exhausted, there's a high likelihood you may not be able to perform in the bedroom at an ideal level, agrees Spicer. (Not to mention, you might be spending a ton of time on training, which means less time for dating or seeing your S.O. See: How to Navigate a Relationship When Your Partner Is Serious AF About Fitness)
If you're training for a marathon and start tapering for a few weeks before the race, this is the reason you might see an uptick in your sex drive leading up to the big event, says Backe. "Prior to competition, when an athlete's training tapers off, their sex drive and energy level are both very high," he says.
The Benefits of Training
Okay, okay. Now for the good news: Exercising isn't all bed when it comes to your sex life. In fact, the benefits likely outweigh the risks.
Flexibility & Stamina
Exercising on a regular basis increases cardiovascular health, flexibility, and stamina which can all be beneficial during sex, says Spicer. Blood circulation can keep muscles, blood vessels, and nerves performing at peak levels, and strength and flexibility can help you be more comfortable in sex positions (normal or adventurous). There are also a ton of physiological perks of working out that carry over to sex, too, like boosting your libido and increased muscular endurance.
Confidence and Self-Esteem
The benefits of exercise go far beyond just the physical; it also positively affects your mental, emotional, and psychological states, which in turn benefits your sex life.
"People usually get a significant confidence boost from working out regularly," says Courtney Ross CFMP, CPT, a certified trainer and functional medicine practitioner. If you battle insecurity issues and don't feel 100-percent comfortable in your own skin, working out help you feel more sexually confident. "When you're naked, you want to feel good about your body," she says. "Feeling strong and powerful from exercising and pushing yourself in the gym can definitely help with that."
"Confidence is key in the world of sex—confidence to put yourself out there, to ask for what you want, to demand respect," says Dani Speegle, a beam CBD partner and CrossFit athlete.
Mental and Emotional Health
Stress plays a huge role in libido and sexual performance; not only can high stress levels interfere with your sex drive, but it can also roadblock your orgasm. Luckily, the surge of endorphins you get post-workout act as natural painkillers and help improve sleep quality which, as a result, reduces your stress level, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. "Being an athlete definitely has a positive effect on a woman's hormones and sex drive," says Buratti. "Because endorphins are regularly at play, they're more easily accessed for sexual pleasure, and, when mixed with a flexible pelvic floor, more intense orgasms," says Buratti.
"People who perform moderate levels of exercise on a regular basis boost their sex hormones boosted and, as a result, their sex drive," says Backe. It's true: Improving cardiovascular function through exercise "may increase pleasure, arousal, and orgasm in women," according to a study published in The Journal of Education and Health Promotion.
While working out will boost your libido in the present tense, it might have awesome long-term effects too; working out regularly might help you maintain a high libido later in life versus if you didn't exercise, as demonstrated by this study on exercise, testosterone, and middle-aged men.
The Bottom Line
As with anything in life, exercise is all about finding the right balance that works for each person.
"It's common to think that more of a good thing is always better, but the reality is that you can get too much of a good thing, especially when it comes to exercise," says Spicer.
Ultimately, you don't need to exercise like a high-level athlete to reap the benefits of working out—and practicing moderation just might be the best thing for your sex life, too.