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A host of studies point to a link between fitness and a healthy sex life.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/23/2009 9:19:41 AM ET 2009-12-23T14:19:41

Can breaking a sweat in the bedroom give you a six-pack? Can you skip the gym if your amorous exploits are adventurous enough? Sexploration answers your most intimate queries. Got a question? E-mail us . We'll post answers to select questions.

Q: Is sex really good exercise? How many calories does it burn? And what kind of position in sex can get me to have nice abs?

A: You’ve got this the wrong way around, my friend. You don’t get nice abs from having sex, you get sex from having nice abs. At least that’s what women tell me and they better not be lying or else I’ve wasted the past eight years doing crunches on that damn giant inflatable ball thing at my gym. (Sometimes I think it would be easier just to buy a Ferrari and change my name to Paolo.) I’m still four cans short, but if I ever get a six-pack, I’ll let you know if it works.

Meanwhile, I’m pleased you wrote because your question gives me a chance to repeat my annual year-end, school-marmish lecture on fitness, good health, and sex.

But first to your question. Sex is good for you, as Sexploration has explained before .

The calorie question is murky, though. You can find all kinds of guesses on the Internet, but don’t believe them. Nobody really knows. The reason why nobody knows, explained Ray Rosen, chief scientist at the New England Research Institutes, a private research outfit, is that there are too many variables.

A marathon session of high intensity eroticism in which you two chase each other around the house with kitchen implements will be very different than the good night quickie after Conan while lying on that new pillow top mattress. But if you insist on quantification, Rosen suggests the average episode might be equal to walking up two flights of stairs. In other words, sex by itself is not a good weight loss strategy.

On the other hand, this past year has witnessed a raft of new studies further cementing the link between overall fitness and good sexual function. For example, an Italian research group led by Dr. Katherine Esposito found that premenopausal women with hyperlipidemia — high cholesterol — had lower sexual function scores. In fact, half the women with high cholesterol met the criteria for female sexual dysfunction.

The same group tested 209 male test subjects with erectile dysfunction or with high risk of E.D. Half the men were assigned to lose weight, eat healthier, and exercise. The other half, the control group, were given general information on those topics. After two years, erectile function improved dramatically overall in the test group, and much less dramatically in the control group. The more successful the men were in getting fit, the better woodies they got.

If that isn’t enough motivation for you to get out of that that La-Z-Boy what is?

A University of California San Francisco team led by Dr. Leslee Subak is hoping to confirm these sorts of findings in a new study now being planned. Current data is somewhat limited because getting funding for sexual function studies is difficult despite the fact that sexual dysfunction is now recognized as something of a canary in a coal mine for other conditions like cardiovascular disease, depression and diabetes.

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“There are not many data,” Subak explained, “and the data that exist are not necessarily conclusive, however it does appear that decreased physical activity is an independent risk factor for sexual dysfunction.”

The benefits of exercise might even be immediate. No delayed gratification! Studies done at the University of Texas by Cindy Meston’s female sexuality group have shown “a significant increase in physiological sexual arousal with exercise” after just 20 minutes on a treadmill.

So, does good sex mean better health, or do people have better sex because they are already healthy? That intertwinement is tough to unravel, but, Rosen said, “the evidence is stronger that being healthy is a facilitator. It paves the way for good sex rather than the other way around, though there is some evidence for the second proposition as well.”

Either way, being fit, keeping yourself at an appropriate weight, eating properly, is smart. We all know this, of course, but we live in a country that is among the fattest, least fit, on earth. Yet we are also a country that is preoccupied with sex and sexual imagery. We like talking about it, thinking about it, bragging about it, but we are wrecking our facility at actually doing it.

As both Subak and Rosen point out, getting fit and losing weight are not necessarily panaceas. We may be depressed, we may be in a bad relationship, we may face financial stress — who doesn’t these days?! — and all that can affect libido and performance. Sex is complicated. But exercise also happens to be a great stress reliever and a well-documented therapy for depression. It improves body image and confidence. And there is a feedback loop.

“Frequent sex does a lot for mood,” Rosen explained. “It does a lot for self-esteem, for the partner relationship.” So, he said, “people who work out, get in shape, not only have a better physiology, but also improvements in their relationships.”

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

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