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“If you’re doing it right,” is the tongue-in-cheek answer you’ll usually get when someone poses this question.
But let’s be (moderately) serious for moment: Can sex qualify as a legitimate workout? If you turn to research and most personal trainers, the answer is a resounding and disappointing “no”.
One study did find that a sex session lasting an average of 25 minutes (including foreplay) burned an average of 101 calories in men and 69.1 calories in women. But compared to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity running, which burned 279 calories in men and 213 calories in women, sex is hardly a grueling workout. Another study found that the a man expends approximately 3.5 calories per minute during sex, which is roughly equivalent to walking at a moderate pace. An average sex session (minus foreplay) only lasts about six minutes, however, making the total calorie burn pretty negligible.
“Sex wouldn’t be considered a workout in terms of caloric expenditure and muscular gains in the traditional sense,” says Sara Silberstang, C.P.T., a yogi and founder of Mind Body Love. “However, 4-5 calories per minute is still better than zero.”
One way to make sex more of a cardio workout is to increase the time of the act.
And that’s true. Any time spent engaging in any level of physical activity is better than sitting on the couch. As an added bonus, sex does have other significant health benefits. “Having sex for at least 10 minutes contributes to your cardiorespiratory health, increased serotonin levels (the happy hormone), and improved sleep,” Silberstang says.
Studies have found that sex can relieve everything from anxiety and depression to high blood pressure. When men orgasm, their bodies release seratonin, oxytocin, and prolactin, all hormones associated with better moods, relaxation, and lowered stress. Multiple studies have also found links between regular sex and a reduced risk for heart disease and prostate cancer, and a stronger immune system.
“One reason that sex isn’t classified as a workout is due to its average duration: 3 to 13 minutes,” Silberstang explains. “So, naturally, one of the ways to make sex more of a cardio workout is to increase the time of the act.” On top of adding more foreplay to your sexual repertoire (for which your partner will thank you), you need to give your endurance a boost. So, maybe there is something to the whole “if you’re doing it right” concept.
“One way to increase your time in bed and improve sex’s potential workout benefits is to activate your pelvic floor muscles,” Silberstang suggests. “The pelvic floor is the deepest part of the core muscles, and learning how to activate this area leads to increased blood flow to the genitals, more prolonged and intense orgasms, and prevents premature ejaculation.”
You’ve probably heard of kegel exercises being beneficial to women, but they’re just as good for men, helping with everything from prostate health to increased sexual endurance. “To perform a kegel, it’s the same muscular contraction as stopping your urine mid-stream,” Silberstang explains. “The techniques below can be used in conjunction with each other and you should notice a difference in your sexual endurance in about a week if you’re consistent.”
Hold and release kegel exercise: Contract for three seconds, release for three seconds, 5-10 times, for three sets, one round every day. After a week, or as it gets easier to hold and contract, build up to more reps or more seconds holding, for example 10-15 reps, or holding for 4-5 minutes. Keep increasing the variables, or adding another set into your day.
Rapid-fire kegel exercise: Contract and release as many times as you can in a row without stopping. Try starting with one set of 10, and build up each day to 15 or 20.
Sex itself isn’t a workout, but the more you work out outside of the bedroom, the healthier and more, er, spirited your bedroom sessions will be, which in turn will make sex more of a workout. So, if you really want your bedroom antics to more closely resemble exercise, you have to build your cardiovascular endurance in the gym first. Silberstang suggests incorporating more high-intensity moves to your training (particularly if your current regimen is focused on weightlifting). “My favorites are kettlebell swings, which burn up to 20 calories per minute, and jumping rope, which burns up to 500 calories in 30 minutes,” she says.
Silberstang’s kettlebell workout:
Set up 5 kettlebells in increasing weights (e.g. 25lbs to 50lbs). Perform 20 swings with the heaviest, 30 swings with the next, 40, 50, and so on. Do this for 3-5 rounds for a high-intensity cardio boost.
Silberstang’s jump rope workout:
Start with 10 minutes nonstop and build up to 30 minutes. To start increasing your endurance, incorporate small increments into your normal weight-training routine: Jump for 5 minutes between sets and gradually add more time. Or start your workout with a 10- to 15-minute jump rope warm up and end with a 10- to 15-minute jump rope cool down.
So no, sadly, sex isn’t a viable substitute for exercise unless you’re having epic two-hour sessions four times a week. However, having sex regularly has tons of other benefits for your mind and body, so there are plenty of reasons (as if you really needed more) to get more action between the sheets.