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Fun and Fit: Exercise and Sexual Health

How you move affects how you groove

Sexual health is defined by Mosby’s Medical Dictionary as “a capacity to enjoy and control sexual behavior without fear, shame or guilt.” Sexual dysfunction is broadly defined by the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine as “disorders that interfere with a full sexual response cycle. These disorders make it difficult for a person to enjoy or to have sexual intercourse.”

The good news, especially for older adults, is that most sexual dysfunctions can be treated or alleviated through exercise. It has been found to increase sexual drive, functioning, activity and satisfaction because of the physical endurance, muscle tone and body composition derived from exercise. In addition, exercise activates the sympathetic nervous system, which encourages blood flow to the genital regions.

Even low levels of physical activity can elevate mood and help keep sex organs and muscles in better working condition. A 2000 study found that after just 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, women became more sexually responsive, while men had increased testosterone levels after short, intense bouts of exercise.

Frequency, level of desire and enjoyment are also affected positively for those who engage in regular exercise at any age. In 2004, a study of college-age students found a strong correlation between fitness levels, self-perception, body image, social meaning, outward appearance, and sexual performance and desire. These findings were replicated in studies of people in their 40s and 60s. And of course, sexual activity itself counts as exercise!

One really interesting comparison of exercise and sexual activity looked at heart rate and blood pressure during treadmill exercise and sexual activity (not simultaneously). Not surprisingly, participants spent more time in sexual activity than they did on the treadmill, but here’s the intriguing point — the treadmill exercise duration predicted sexual activity duration. For each minute of treadmill time, there was a 2.3-minute increase in sexual activity duration.

There are also a number of sexual diseases and dysfunctions that are radically improved through exercise. For example, exercise has a protective effect on Type 2 diabetes, with pelvic floor exercises of specific value. A minimum of about 50 percent of overweight men with Type 2 diabetes have erectile dysfunction, a frustrating condition that is helped enormously by cardiorespiratory fitness.

Urinary incontinence is markedly improved via pelvic floor muscle training, with 100 percent of women reporting decreased incontinence frequency and duration. And it works for men, too — after the strengthening training, incidences of urinary and fecal incontinence decreased and erectile function increased. Pelvic floor exercises are also an effective modality for primiparous (giving birth only once) women who have vaginal deliveries. Desire and satisfaction go up, and pain goes down for these women.

Breast cancer survivors consistently report an improved quality of life (better physical functioning, reduced fatigue and pain) when they participate in physical activity. In addition, prostate and bladder cancer are positively affected by exercise, including its stress-reducing aspects.

Sexual activity itself has been found to help with cardiovascular disease, with researchers finding that sexual activity corresponds to light to moderate physical exercise and entails no significant risk to the majority of patients with cardiovascular disease (severe angina or chronic heart failure are exceptions).

There has been a lot of research on the relationship between exercise and erectile dysfunction, which affects more than 100 million men. The link between cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and erectile dysfunction is strong, and exercise is a mitigating factor on all three. Doctors who prescribe movement to patients with these three issues have reported high success rates. This is good news, especially considering that exercise is a less invasive treatment than medications, surgery or testosterone replacement therapies.

Sexual functioning and health are things everyone should have at any age. Exercise just may be the magic pill!

[Note: The authors recognize that it would be far too easy to make jokes about sexual health, but decided to play it straight for today’s column.]

— Identical twins and fitness pros Kymberly Williams-Evans and Alexandra Williams have been in the fitness industry since the first aerobics studio opened on the European continent. They teach, write, edit, emcee and present their programs worldwide on land, sea and airwaves. They co-write Fun and Fit: Q and A with K and A. You can currently find them in action leading classes in Santa Barbara and Goleta. Kymberly is the former faculty minor adviser at UCSB for its fitness instruction degree offered through the Department of Exercise & Sport Studies; Alexandra serves as an instructor and master teacher for the program. Fun and Fit answers real questions from real people, so please send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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