Ex­er­cise can kill your li­bido – so, are you too fit to fuck?

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Your glutes are perky, your abs are toned and your legs have never looked bet­ter. In fact, you’ve never felt more body con­fi­dent – but your li­bido has all but van­ished? As sur­pris­ing new re­search says too much train­ing can kill de­sire, it’s time to ask if your sweat ses­sions are an in­ad­ver­tent short­cut to celibacy

It’s tricky to put a price on feel­ing, and look­ing, your fittest. A set of one-to-one PT ses­sions? Makes sense. Half the sup­ple­ments in a Hol­land & Bar­rett stock­room? As long as pay day’s on the hori­zon. Your sex life? Er, what? Yes – the true cost of peak fit­ness may not be fi­nan­cial, but sex­ual. It could be as sim­ple as ditch­ing Ben from Bum­ble for a class at Barry’s Boot­camp. Or fol­low­ing your train­ing runs with a shake and a sleep, rather than any shenani­gans in bed. When the Univer­sity of North Carolina took 1,077 men and stud­ied their long-term ex­er­cise habits and self-re­ported li­bido lev­els, a clear but rarely talked about trend emerged. ‘If you’re male and train for a large num­ber of hours or at a high in­ten­sity, your li­bido will de­crease,’ re­veals study au­thor An­thony Hack­ney, pro­fes­sor of ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy and nu­tri­tion. ‘And while there’s no solid re­search as yet, there’s no rea­son to sus­pect that women would be any dif­fer­ent.’


Let’s take a look at what we know about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween work­ing out and your sex­ual de­sires. Un­like Dr Hack­ney’s re­search, stud­ies into fe­male arousal tend to fo­cus on the acute ef­fects of ex­er­cise – that is, your body’s im­me­di­ate gen­i­tal re­sponse to a sin­gle sweat ses­sion. And find­ings sug­gest the flush in your face is re­peated down be­low. ‘At a ba­sic level, gen­i­tal arousal is de­pen­dent on blood flow to that area,’ says sex re­searcher Dr Tier­ney Lorenz. ‘So it stands to rea­son that any­thing that pro­motes blood flow – ex­er­cise in­cluded – will boost sex­ual feel­ing.’ Back in 1996, Dr Cindy Me­ston, now di­rec­tor of the Sex­ual Psy­chophys­i­ol­ogy Lab­o­ra­tory at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, asked 15 women to cy­cle for 20 min­utes be­fore show­ing them an erotic film. This short burst of ac­tiv­ity trig­gered the women’s sym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tems (SNS) to arouse their sweet spots, where, come porn time, re­searchers found an in­crease in ‘vagi­nal pulse am­pli­tude’, the mea­sure of vagi­nal en­gorge­ment spe­cific to sex­ual arousal. Dr Lorenz re­pro­duced th­ese find­ings in 2012, swap­ping bikes for tread­mills. ‘Mod­er­ate lev­els of SNS ac­tiv­ity prime a woman’s body to ex­pe­ri­ence higher gen­i­tal arousal than if she is at very low or very high lev­els of SNS ac­tiv­ity,’ she says. ‘So you’ll ex­pe­ri­ence a dif­fer­ence from when you’re at rest or in a state of high phys­i­cal stress.’ And it’s here where the ar­gu­ment that too much ex­er­cise at high in­ten­sity could af­fect your mojo starts to take off.


The 20 min­utes of mod­er­ate ex­er­cise par­tic­i­pants did in the afore­men­tioned re­search – record­ing an en­ergy ex­pen­di­ture level of around 70% of max­i­mum heart rate – doesn’t quite do justice to the av­er­age fit­ness-lover’s sched­ule th­ese days. Whether it be short, sweaty HIIT ses­sions or mul­ti­ple morn­ing weights work­outs ev­ery week, there’s noth­ing chilled about it. Link this back to sex and it’s not as sim­ple as get­ting hot in a spin class lead­ing to things heat­ing up in the bed­room. In­stead, Dr Hack­ney presents what he calls the ‘in­verted U’. Up to a point, ex­er­cise will in­crease your sex drive, thanks to that SNS boost, but train be­yond this point and your li­bido is likely to tank. Harki­rat Ma­hal, CEO of Mo­ti­vatept, fre­quently sees this in­verted U ef­fect in women who are en­durance train­ing. ‘One client trained for a marathon, a half­marathon and a triathlon in a sin­gle year. With the stress on her body, the pres­sure of the races and the re­sult­ing ex­haus­tion, she told me that her sex drive had dis­ap­peared. Blown out When she dropped to twice-weekly work­outs af­ter com­pet­ing, her sex drive re­turned. In essence, she rides a li­bido roller­coaster tied to her train­ing – a sac­ri­fice she’s will­ing to make to achieve peak per­for­mance.’ And cases like this are on the rise. Sex ther­a­pist Peter Sadding­ton, a cou­ples coun­sel­lor at Re­late, has seen a mas­sive in­crease in fe­male ex­er­cis­ers com­ing to him to talk li­bido. ‘Two or three years ago, I would see one fe­male client each year who said ex­er­cise was af­fect­ing her sex life,’ he says. ‘Now I see 12 to 14 women, par­tic­u­larly in the 25 to 40 age group. They can get hooked on the en­dor­phin rush fit­ness de­liv­ers, do­ing marathon af­ter marathon or con­tin­u­ally up­ping the in­ten­sity of their work­outs to the point where their sex lives suf­fer.’ There’s an­other blow for us women – we tend to be more sen­si­tive to over-ex­er­cis­ing


than men. ‘When women ex­er­cise to an ex­treme or en­durance level, hy­popi­tu­itarism (an un­der-func­tion­ing of the pi­tu­itary gland) can de­velop, lead­ing to low lev­els of testos­terone and oe­stro­gen,’ says Pro­fes­sor Peter Sönksen of the So­ci­ety for En­docrinol­ogy. ‘Women need a cer­tain level of body fat for the re­pro­duc­tive sys­tem – with all its hor­mones – to work ef­fec­tively,’ adds Lisa Dawn Hamil­ton, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Mount Al­li­son Univer­sity. ‘So if over-ex­er­cis­ing leads to low body fat, your body es­sen­tially shuts down its ca­pac­ity to be­come preg­nant. It would make sense for this to ex­tend to the de­sire for sex, too.’ And the av­er­age woman – for whom cram­ming in mul­ti­ple train­ing ses­sions a week means early morn­ing alarms, skipped lunch breaks and de­layed bed­times sim­ply to fit all her other life crap in – is of­ten too shat­tered to even con­sider sex.


An­other sex­ual player in all this is the pelvic floor. It isn’t just the slack­en­ing of this ham­mock of mus­cles af­ter child­birth that dis­turbs sex­ual sen­sa­tion – be­ing too fit can ac­tu­ally tighten them so much that in­ter­course be­comes chal­leng­ing. ‘Ath­letes typ­i­cally have a high level of tone in their pelvic floor – called hy­per­tonic­ity – and this tends to go hand in hand with pain dur­ing pen­e­tra­tion,’ ex­plains Ju­lia Di Paolo, a pelvic floor phys­io­ther­a­pist. ‘There’s just no give. The vagina is de­signed to close down on it­self when there’s noth­ing in it, then stretch to ac­com­mo­date a pe­nis, fin­ger or tam­pon. But force-stretch a tis­sue that is mega-toned and the brain will in­ter­pret that as pain.’ Di Paolo ad­mits that we lack ex­act science to ex­plain why hy­per­tonic­ity is seen so com­monly in heavy ex­er­cis­ers, but it’s likely down to the fact that your pelvic floor is the in­ter­nal equiv­a­lent of a good sports bra. ‘It has to shock-ab­sorb and de­cel­er­ate mo­tion while si­mul­ta­ne­ously sup­port­ing the pelvic or­gans, sim­i­lar to your quads when run­ning down­hill,’ she ex­plains. And tense mus­cles else­where don’t help. ‘Tight calves can pull down on your ham­strings, tilt­ing your pelvis and tight­en­ing the floor.’ It’s why main­tain­ing a groin prepped for good times is no longer sim­ply about teach­ing the right mus­cles to con­tract, but also learn­ing to re­lax them. ‘We call it down­train­ing, or re­verse Kegel,’ ex­plains

Di Paolo. Imag­ine pick­ing up a blue­berry with your vagina and anus as you ex­hale, then fully let the blue­berry go as you in­hale. Eye roll, sure, but it’s worth un­wind­ing – re­search in the In­ter­na­tional Urog­y­ne­col­ogy Jour­nal linked op­ti­mum pelvic floor func­tion to in­creased arousal and or­gasms. But be­yond the science, what does work­ing out to the max re­ally mean for your li­bido? Some­where be­tween the blood-flow boost of mod­er­ate work­outs and the re­pro­duc­tive dys­func­tion of ex­treme sports, there’s a sex­ual mid­dle ground that ex­perts are be­gin­ning to dis­cover. While widely ac­knowl­edged, the train­ing tip­ping point that kills li­bido faster than the fa­mil­iar ring­tone of your par­ents on Face­time re­mains un­de­fined. ‘It should be pos­si­ble to learn more with in-depth hor­mone pro­fil­ing, or mon­i­tor­ing sex life via struc­tured in­ter­views or ques­tion­naires, but no one’s done it yet,’ says Pro­fes­sor Sönksen. Un­til then, Pete Mccall, a fit­ness ed­u­ca­tor who has taught at the Na­tional Academy of Sports Medicine, sug­gests a 45-minute ses­sion cap. ‘To pro­tect the li­bido, limit high-in­ten­sity ex­er­cise to 40-45 min­utes, two or three times a week,’ he ad­vises. Dr Hack­ney, the aca­demic be­hind the sur­pris­ing li­bido re­sults in men, is now call­ing for re­search into the op­po­site sex, too. ‘I’m hope­ful our con­clu­sions will gen­er­ate in­ter­est in in­ves­ti­gat­ing the same topic us­ing women,’ he says. ‘It’s cru­cial. We know a lot about the de­vel­op­ment of re­pro­duc­tive dys­func­tion, ath­letic amen­or­rhoea [lack of pe­ri­ods], but other con­se­quences, such as low­ered li­bido, need to be ad­dressed to en­sure over­all health.’ Un­til that in­tel is nailed down, it’s up to you to reach a happy state be­tween the thrill of scor­ing a PB and, well, just scor­ing.


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