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Marion, Sex/Exercise, Feb 2008

Exercise and Sex

By Marion Webb

Chocolate hearts, sparkling wine, rose petals on your pillow, ah yes, love is in the air.

This February, creating aphrodisiac moments surrounding Valentines day will take center-stage for many romantic couples. So, what does Cupid's waist line and Venus' curves have to do with the hotness factor in lover's lane?

If researchers are correct, the size of one's love handles has "everything" to do with it. Given that about two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese (68.3 million men and 65 million women according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and with only 26 percent of adults being physically active, for many couples a healthier lifestyle may be the ticket to a happier love life.

The American Council on Exercise pointed to multiple studies in men that show a direct link between obesity and risk of erectile dysfunction and how this can be mediated by adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes sensible eating and regular exercise. Research has also shown that body size can affect women's sexual functioning with obese women reporting lower body satisfaction and feeling less sexually desirable than normal-weight women.

Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D. in physiology and ACE's Chief Science Officer, said that "Sexual function is affected by general health and the more you can do to improve your health with physical activity, the better your sex life can be.

Findings of a two-year study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in June 2004 testing the effects of adopting a healthier lifestyle in 110 obese men aged 35 to 55 with erectile dysfunction support Bryant's observation.

All men in the study had a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30; a BMI of 25 or lower is considered normal and calculated as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. Half of the men were assigned to an intervention group; the other half to the control group. The intervention group had access to behavioral and psychological counselors, nutritionists and trainers while the men in the control group were limited to written and oral information about healthier food choices and exercise without individual attention.

So while the men in the intervention group learned about ways to reduce one's daily caloric intake and keeping daily food logs, which were reviewed by nutritionists, the men in the control group did not. Men in the intervention group also were able to participate in monthly group sessions to help them with their overall goal of reducing their total body weight by 10 percent or more. In the first year, the men's diet was restricted to 1,700 calories, and then raised to 1,900 calories in the second year. The men also had access to trainers, who developed customized workouts, and increased their daily physical activity levels, mainly by walking, but also with swimming, playing football, baseball and soccer.

After two years of following this healthier living plan, the men with intervention lowered their BMI to 31.2 from originally 36.9. Their overall health also greatly improved: Health gains included weight loss, lowered blood pressure, reduced glucose and insulin levels, and improved cholesterol profiles (i.e., decreased total cholesterol and triglyceride levels and increased high-density lipoprotein levels).

Participants in the control group, meanwhile, showed little improvement. They lowered their mean body mass index to a mere 35.7 from previously 36.4, and showed no significant health benefits. By the end of the study, men in the intervention group exercised more than twice as long as each week compared to the control group (3.25 hours per week vs. 1.40 hours per week).

The net result: 31 percent of the men with intervention regained their sexual function while the men in the control group did not.

"A growing body of evidence supports the notion that regular exercise may enhance sexuality through a variety of mechanisms that affect both the body and mind," Bryant said. And it's never too late to start.

The American Medical Association reported that men who initiated physical activity in midlife had a 70 percent reduced risk for erectile dysfunction relative to those who remained sedentary. A brisk two-mile walk a day, burning 200 calories per day was sufficient to produce this effect.

This is also in line with epidemiological evidence that physical activity was associated with a 30 percent lower risk of erectile dysfunction while obesity was associated with a 30 percent higher risk of erectile dysfunction, the journal reported.

In women, researchers found that self-body image and actual body size play vital roles in sexual functioning. According to a study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, obese women had lower body satisfaction and sexual desire, fewer erotic fantasies, and less autoeroticism and sexual motivation than normal-weight women. Women with a higher BMI were found less likely to be in a dating relationship and had fewer sexual experiences than women with lower BMIs.

A study conducted by researchers Angela D. Weaver and E. Sandra Byers from the University of New Brunswick in Canada, found that university students who had a positive self-body image reported better sexual functioning even after controlling for BMI and exercise.

Many women have already discovered that regular workouts combined with a healthy diet boost self-confidence and with it mental and physical health.

Added Bryant, "physical improvements in muscle strength and tone, endurance, body composition, and cardiovascular function (specifically, enhanced peripheral blood flow) can all enhance sexual functioning" in both men and women.

However, as with everything in life, finding a healthy balance is key.

"Too much exercise can actually decrease testosterone levels leading to a less-robust sexual appetite," Bryant cautions.

To lose weight, the experts recommend that individuals accumulate 60 minutes at a moderate-to vigorous intensity physical activities on most days of the week and eating sensibly. To maintain weight loss, however, requires 60-to-90 minutes of daily moderate-intensity physical activity. For more information on healthy eating, exercise, and healthier living, visit www.mypyramid.gov, www.nih.gov, and www.acefitness.org. For those still contemplating gift ideas for their loved one this Valentine's day, how about giving the gift of good health by strolling in the park or booking a "couple's-session" with a personal trainer followed by candle-light dinner?

Marion Webb is the managing editor for the American Council on Exercise. For specific fitness-related story ideas or comments, please e-mail her directly at marion.webb@acefitness.org.