How do we get in the mood these days? As a personal trainer to busy women, many of whom are mums with tiring schedules, the list of things to do often seems endless. There really are never enough hours in the day.
Unsure of exactly where sex features in amongst it all, we do know that it seems to get pushed further down that list the busier we get.
A common theme I see is the amount of pressure we, as women, put ourselves under to be better and to do more. Exercise more. Eat more vegetables. Drink more water. Write more lists. The mental load we bear is often all consuming.
So it comes as no surprise that when I bring up this article’s theme about exercise improving our sex lives, the topic brings about derision and laughter among clients and friends.
In our younger days, perhaps exercise was something we did to make ourselves more attractive to a prospective partner. But now exercise has taken on an altogether different purpose.
It’s our time out. A way to make ourselves feel better physically and mentally. Something that’s simply for our own personal benefit for a change. So the relationship between exercise and sex isn’t exactly aligned these days.
Does exercise help or hinder libido?
When I posed the question about what does get us in the mood, I’m met with jokes about a tidy house or partners taking the kids off our hands for a day. If anything, it seems that sex is more aligned with relaxation than activity. So I set about doing a bit of research; is exercise something that actually helps or hinders our libido?
It’s an interesting question, and there are various findings which at first seem somewhat contradicting and confusing.
Libido – Our desire to have sex.
Pelvic floor – The hammock of muscles that form the pubic bone to the coccyx.
Kegel exercises – Designed to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles.
Testosterone – A male sex hormone that’s also found in women’s ovaries in small amounts.
What is libido?
Firstly, let’s start off with the definition of what a libido exactly means. In layman’s terms, it’s our desire to have sex, and this can vary from woman to woman.
One woman’s low libido (e.g. having sex once a week) could seem high to another who has sex with her partner once in a blue moon. It’s all relative. Plus, various factors can impact our libido.
“Your libido is influenced by a combination of psychological, physiological, and emotional factors,” says holistic health expert Ana Gonzalez Herrera, founder and CEO of Hormone University, an educational platform about hormones.
“That includes things like your stress levels, mental well-being, hormone levels, medications, and overall health (and health changes).”
A study undertaken by the University of North Carolina, which took 1,077 men and looked at their long-term exercise habits and self-reported libido levels, saw that there was a trend that emerged between exercise and sex.
“If you’re male and train for a large number of hours or it’s at a high intensity, your libido will decrease,” revealed 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.”
How much is too much?
According to physical therapist Grayson Wickham, founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault, when it comes to exercise, more actually isn’t better since you can send your body into a state of overtraining.
“Overtraining syndrome is caused by a combination of too much exercise and not enough recovery,” he explains. And it can lead to a number of unsavoury side effects such as prolonged fatigue, moodiness, feelings of stress and agitation, loss of appetite, poor sleep quality, and lingering injury and soreness.
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So has there been any ‘solid research’ on the link between sex and exercise for women in particular? The studies into female libidos seem to have focused more acutely, i.e. on the immediate arousal from a single workout.
“At the most 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 help boost sexual feeling.”
Dr Lorenz reproduced findings from an experiment taken in 1966 in 2012, to observe the response in ‘vaginal pulse amplitude’, swapping bikes in the first study for treadmills in the more recent one.
“Moderate levels of sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity prime a woman’s body to experience higher genital arousal than if she is at a very low or very high SNS activity,” she says. “So you’ll experience a difference from when you’re totally at rest or in a state of high physical stress.”
5 ways to boost your libido
1. Get to your nearest pool or lido
When you swim, you build muscle (with pelvic floor muscles typically getting an extra workout), increase endurance and get the blood pumping, all without harm to your joints that can come from other high-impact workouts. Harvard researchers found that male and female swimmers in their 60s had sex lives similar to people 20 years younger.
2. Try a workout date with your partner
Studies show that challenging physical activities can ignite a spark in couples. Coordinate so you’re running at the same pace or working out to the same intensity and it can further strengthen your emotional connection. A small study from the Univerity of Quebec found that sex burns about 4.2 calories per minute for men, and 3.1 calories per minute for women.
3. Train first thing in the morning
This way you’ll have more time to recover from the workout and give you more energy for other such activities!
4. Include yoga and meditation at least once a week
The headspace will help to keep stress at bay while the strengthening poses will help improve your flexibility and overall body image.
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5. Balance your diet
Healthy eating will ensure your body is operating at its best, dips in energy will be fewer and less extreme, and it will reduce the chances of obesity and diabetes, which can lead to low libido and conditions such as erectile dysfunction in men.
Too knackered to try
So exercise will increase your sex drive, thanks to that SNS boost, but train beyond a certain point and your libido is likely to take a nose-dive. But there’s another zinger for us ladies; women tend to react more sensitively to over-exercising than men.
“When women exercise to an extreme or endurance level, hypopituitarism (an under-function of the pituitary gland) can develop, leading to low levels of testosterone and oestrogen,” explains Peter Sönksen, visiting professor of endocrinology at the University of Southampton and member of the Society for Endocrinology.
“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.”
So, if you do a crazily-intense workout your body will go into a panic and hit the recovery mode. It will cause an anti-inflammatory response to repair your muscle tissue meaning that any post-workout energy and blood flow is going to that tissue instead of your sex organs.
Put simply, too much training and we’ll be too knackered for sex. Makes sense.
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Squeeze that pelvic floor
To add to our woes, research has also found that our pelvic floor also plays a part. I deal in most part with ladies who have a slackened pelvic floor (the hammock of muscles that form the pubic bone to the coccyx) from childbirth, but exercise too much and you can experience an overactive or over-toned pelvic floor which can make intercourse more challenging or painful.
The good news, though, is that pelvic squeezes or kegel exercises, which help to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles (but not too much, as highlighted above!), may have a positive impact on libido in both men and women.
Kegels help to tone vaginal muscles in women, which can lead to more powerful orgasms and for men, kegels can help to delay ejaculation.
One study out of Iran also found that even after childbirth, an eight-week pelvic muscle exercise routine could increase strength and sexual self-efficacy – or the woman’s ‘belief in her ability to perform sexual acts and sexual emotional reactions successfully’ – after delivery.
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So finally, some positive news in the female libido department. And there’s more:
“There are many factors that influence someone’s libido, and exercise is one of those factors,” says sexologist Rebecca Alvarez, founder of Bloomi, a marketplace for sexual wellness products. “Moderate exercise has also been shown to boost testosterone levels in both men and women.”
A paper published by a team from the University of Texas entitled ‘The Roles of Testosterone and Alpha-Amylase in Exercise-Induced Sexual Arousal in Women’ also found that working out increases body awareness, which could increase bodily sensations.
Finding the sweet spot
Okay, so exercise is good right? You can see where one can get confused here. It’s a bit of a Goldilocks scenario – go too far one way and the exercise-to-libido pendulum can easily sway in the wrong direction when what we really want is ‘just right’.
So what is the ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to the optimum amount of exercise to keep your sex drive whirring and not stalling? And what type of exercise should we be doing?
The advice from one particular research is to limit high-intensity exercise to 40-45mins, two to three times a week in order to keep your libido in check.
Both resistance training and endurance training have also been shown to have a positive effect on sex drive, although strength training has been found to be better at relieving stress than cardio.
We know that exercise releases endorphins, those kick-ass feel-good hormones that improve your mood, reduce symptoms of depression, and alleviate stress. So in short, any exercise that improves your strength and body image, and helps you blow off steam and reduce stress, will improve your libido.
Just keep an eye out for signs of overtraining, otherwise sex will quickly return to the bottom of the ‘to-do’ pile.
What are the best exercises to kickstart your libido?
To put those feel-good endorphins into action and libido into gear, try some of these exercises. Do 2-3 sets of 30-40secs with 10secs rest intervals for a 20-30min workout.
On the floor with your elbows or wrists placed directly under your shoulders, hands flat on the floor and core engaged. Keeping your body in a straight line from your knees to your head. Hold the position and engage in deep inhalations and exhalations. Swap for ab contractions if you have diastasis recti (on all fours draw navel to spine as you slowly exhale).
Pelvic tilts and lifts/glute bridge
Back placed on the floor, knees bent, feet and knees positioned hip width apart, rock the pelvis forward to tilt, then slowly raise your bottom and hips off the ground, gently lowering back down to the ground. Include some pulses at the top and pelvic squeezes on every 10th rep.
Pull in your back and front passage at the same time whilst lifting the pelvic floor internally, think holding wee/fart!
Cat to cow
In four-point kneeling position, rock your hips and pelvis slowly into a forward and back motion. Inhale, then exhale, round your back like a cat and hold for a few seconds then reverse the motion by inhaling and drawing and lifting your chest forward and up whilst you retract your shoulder blades back and again hold for a few seconds.
On all fours to begin with, stretch out fingers wide. Tuck your toes under and push your body up and off the floor or mat. Press into the hands and move your chest gently towards your thighs whilst pushing heels gently towards the floor. Relax head and shoulders and breathe deeply.
Bringing your right knee forward, let it rest behind your right hand. Bring your right foot up and to the left and your right ankle near the left hip. Straighten your left leg and slide it back behind you keeping your foot flat to the ground.
Walk the hands forward and lower down as much as possible letting your torso fall towards your right thigh. Your pelvis should be pointed to the ground but don’t overextend or force it. Swap sides.
In side-lying position, inhale keeping feet together as you slowly rotate your leg to open hip as the top knee opens, engaging the pelvic floor on the lift. Only open the hip as far as feels comfortable. Exhale and slowly release the pelvic floor as you bring the knee back in line with the other knee. Swap sides.
Feet placed slightly wider than hip width apart and slowly sink into position sticking out your bum and sinking your hips back and down, and then return to stand. Increase intensity by coming up onto toes or off the ground into a squat jump for a cardio blast.
Wide or sumo squat
As above but feet placed wider with toes and knees facing outwards. Engage the pelvic floor on the lift and exhale as you lower.
Options for position are on your knees or your toes. Place your hands wider than shoulder-width apart and keep your neck nice and long, looking down as you slowly lower your chest to the ground in between your palms.
On all fours. Raise one foot, keeping it flexed, and maintain the 90° angle as you raise your leg behind you. Then lower and bring your knee in towards your tummy. Activate your pelvic floor as you raise the leg.
The best exercises to improve your libido
Top image: Getty Images