Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Hate Exercise? Love Having Sex? You're in for Some Good News

Sex may use up half the calories of gym workouts but it feels twice as good

The act of having sex can, for many people, involve considerable physical exertion. However, you probably don’t seriously consider swapping your gym workout for a comparable amount of time having sex.  Findings from a study published in October 2013 may cause you to rethink the way you burn off those extra pounds. Julie Frappier and her colleagues at the Université du Québec à Montréal decided to find out the truth behind the notion that sex is an effective form of exercise.  Their results suggest that all other things being equal, your body can benefit in more than obvious ways by engaging in an active bout of sexual activity.

As you might imagine, there’s not a plethora of research on energy expenditure during sexual activity. First of all, investigators have to find volunteers willing to have their physical exertion measured while engaging in an act of a highly personal nature. Next, and even more importantly, investigators must take care to ensure that they rule out other competing factors, such as the overall health of participants, their physical stamina, their age, and the nature of the sexual interaction such as whether it’s between partners in a stable relationship or strangers matched up in the lab.  According to the research literature that Frappier and her colleagues reviewed, no one had conducted such well-controlled studies, nor had previous investigators used sufficiently sophisticated measures so that they could draw well-informed conclusions about the value of sex as a form of exercise.

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Frappier and team decided to conduct their research in a naturalistic setting rather than in the lab. They chose 21 heterosexual couples ranging from 19 to 31 years of age who shared key demographic features, engaged in at least 2 hours a week of formal exercise, and had sex at least once per week. All were in relatively stable relationships (lasting from 6 months to 2 years) and were free of major diseases that might affect their sexual functioning. Participants measured their sexual energy expenditure in their own homes. 

At the beginning of the study, all participants completed an exercise endurance test consisting of treadmill walking for 30 minutes at moderate intensity.  Their performance on the treadmill test served as the control condition. For the course of one month, the participants engaged in sexual activity one time per week, the only restriction being that they needed to have a sexual episode end in orgasm by at least one of the partners. The couples were asked not to use drugs, alcohol, or erectile dysfunction medications, but otherwise to have sex as usual, within their own homes.

After each sexual encounter, the researchers asked participants to complete a brief questionnaire in which they rated their fatigue, effort, pleasure, partner’s pleasure, and perceived caloric expenditure.  While having sex, the participants wore armbands that recorded their actual energy expenditure, allowing for comparisons during the control condition of walking and jogging on the treadmill.

The couples spent an average of 24 minutes involved in sexual activity (with most ranging from 12 to 36 minutes total).  Using a standard measure of an activity’s intensity known as metabolic equivalent (MET), Frappier and her team reported a level of intensity during sexual activity at about the level of shoveling snow or mowing the lawn with a hand mower, but less than that of a typical treadmill workout.  In general, the participants reported that the treadmill workout felt more tiring and they thought they expended more energy than they did while having sex. 

Compared to working out on a treadmill, having sex is definitely more pleasurable.  Almost all the participants reported that they enjoyed 30 minutes of sex much more than they did the 30 minutes on the treadmill, leaving one to wonder about the few (2%) who said they liked treadmill exercise better.  A large majority (80%) felt that their own sexual activity was pleasurable as was that of their partner.

These findings are probably what you would expect, but what about caloric expenditure? During sex, men’s activity was slightly more intense than that of women, and they burned more calories. Although the treadmill exercise was generally more intense than having sex, some men actually did expend more energy while having sex than they did while walking on the treadmill.  

Taking everything into account, sexual activity burns about 4 calories per minute when the activity reaches moderate intensity (i.e. like shoveling snow).  This means that in 30 minutes of sexual activity, a young adult in good health burns up as much as 200 to 300 calories. There's another way to look at the findings too. Sex uses up about half the calories of jogging, but is twice as much fun.

There’s bad news and good news in the findings comparing sex to treadmill as a form of exercise, then. The bad news is that while on the treadmill, both men and women burned twice as many calories, and their level of intensity was higher compared to their performance at home on the bed (or wherever).  This means that even if you could engage in sexual activity for as long or as often as you might while walking or jogging, you’d still take longer to burn off that donut you had with your coffee.

The good news is that sex can provide a form of moderately intense exercise that does work off some of that donut.  Since most people prefer having sex to running on a treadmill (as in this study), this means that having regular sexual activity can provide a great supplement to your ordinary exercise regime.

Extending beyond this particular study, we can also see other ways in which you can reap benefits from your sexual workouts. Any kind of physical exercise, especially involving aerobic activity, can improve your mood along with a host of physiological measures including sleep, resistance to illness, and of course heart disease. If you add sex to a reasonable active lifestyle, you’ll gain even more of a boost to your overall health and well-being. Not a bad way to get the exercise you need and the pleasure to motivate you. 

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 

Reference:

Frappier, J., Toupin, I., Levy, J. J., Aubertin-Leheudre, M., & Karelis, A. D. (2013). Energy Expenditure during Sexual Activity in Young Healthy Couples. PLoS ONE, 8, e79342. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0079342

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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