Is Your Fitness Diet Ruining Your Sex Life?
Regular exercise improves just about every aspect of life. It improves lung capacity, mental health and sleep quality. It helps us focus at work and can create new friendships and communities. And there’s also a wealth of evidence to suggest that being active can improve our sex lives.
Aerobic activity, for example, increases blood flow throughout the body; by activating the sympathetic nervous system, blood flow is encouraged to the genital area, which means increased lubrication. Most forms of exercise reduce stress, with research showing that even low levels of physical activity tend to improve mood. And one 2003 studypublished in the journal Preventionhave even discovered that it can be a kind of aphrodisiac, with women experiencing higher libido and levels of sexual satisfaction after 20 minutes of intense exercise.
So far, so good. But exercise can be a powerful medicine that, if prescribed in the wrong dose, can negatively impact nearly every aspect of our well-being, including sex. We’ve already talked about how being “over-fit” can mess with your hormones and your period. We also know that excessive exercise can reduce our mental well-being, but did you know that it can also totally destroy your libido?
I was here. A few years ago, months after doing daily workouts at a body transformation gym, my libido was at an all-time low. I attribute this to having a “naturally low libido” – even though that hasn’t been the case historically. When I finally got my hormone levels checked after my period stopped, it turned out that my sex hormones were at their lowest, while my cortisol level was at its highest. The physical stress – the exercise that kept me mentally and emotionally together – had reduced my capacity for intimacy.
Your hormones begin to “downregulate” after a certain amount of exercise
And it’s a pretty common story, says Renee McGregor, a leading sports dietitian. “If your energy availability is good and everything is working, you may find that being fit actually improves your libido and you will start to enjoy sex a lot more because you have the energy and stamina to do it. But the problem is that if you have a relative energy deficit in sport (RED-S) or if you exercise too much, your hormones start to get down-regulated.
Too often, we don’t appreciate the role estrogen plays in our bodies. “It has a lot more impact than periods,” she says. “It can affect libido. In postmenopausal women, we know that libido drops and many suffer from vaginal dryness. With hypothermic amenorrhea (loss of periods), if you looked at an ultrasound, you would also see very thin uterine lining. So everything is affected, including not being interested in sex.
Why isn’t low libido talked about more in the fitness industry?
Sex, McGregor argues, plays a fundamental role in our well-being. “It’s more than just a biological need. Sex creates a lot of hormones, connections, and a sense of security in a relationship too. If we neglect how we feel, we also neglect our physical, sexual, and emotional well-being. We end up avoiding the kind of intimacy that is so important to simply being happy and healthy.
Given that low libido can be a sign of hormonal disruption, why aren’t we hearing more about it in health and fitness circles? We’re sex-talking rubbish in Britain, to begin with.
And McGregor thinks there’s also a problem with coaches and physiotherapists who don’t have the basic knowledge to help women understand these types of symptoms. “With the level of training and qualification they get, they won’t be aware of hormonal downregulation, so they won’t necessarily see it as a sign worth explaining and talking about.”
Sports hormones are not limited to testosterone
There’s a lot of talk about testosterone in the sports world because it’s a banned substance known to enhance performance. If we don’t eat enough, you get testosterone downregulation, and that impacts our ability to perform physically – both on the track/gym and in the bedroom. But the industry never signals the importance of estrogen or oxytocin. Sexism could explain the first; testosterone directly impacts men so we know a lot more (97% of sports studies are conducted on men)… but oxytocin impacts everyone.
Oxytocin is the hormone that’s released when you have an orgasm, the hormone you release when you kiss someone, and the hormone that makes you feel like you belong, McGregor explains. It’s a feel-good hormone. If we train too hard, we disrupt our production of oxytocin.
“A lot of times people who don’t have the energy available become more and more isolated, and that then trickles down to the mindset of ‘I’m not good enough, I have to push harder'” , says McGregor. “When we’re in isolation, that’s when our negative thoughts are most dominant. And that’s why we’ve seen such a big increase in people struggling with exercise addiction and eating disorders during the pandemic. Because we’re all isolated, we didn’t have the connections.
Sex is important for self-esteem, happiness and body image
We know, for example, that regular sex is linked to higher self-esteem, with studies showing that having more sex tends to increase body confidence. McGregor works with many professional athletes and although she cannot prescribe sex as such, talking about sex and appetite is a fundamental part of her job. “I help them understand if there’s a reason why they don’t want sex.
“It could be because a couple is breaking up, but I’m going to look at their blood, how much exercise they do and see if they have enough estrogen. If they don’t, it won’t be a surprise they don’t have sex.I’ve had clients come back to me (after eating more and moving less) telling me their libido is back – and that’s great.