OVER THE HUMP?
Exercise can kill your libido – so, are you too fit to fuck?
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.
HIIT OR MISS
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
IF YOU EXERCISE BEYOND A CERTAIN POINT, YOUR LIBIDO IS LIKELY TO TANK
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.
‘FORCE-STRETCH A TISSUE THAT’S MEGA-TONED AND YOU WILL FEEL PAIN’