Can excessive exercise have an impact on desire and sexual function? Recent research indicates that it might. Here's what you need to know.
Years ago scientists conducted a study to explore the connection between endurance exercise and sexual desire in healthy young men. The study included over a thousand men aged 18 to 60. To ensure the reliability of the responses the researchers used selected questions from trusted sources commonly used in research and clinical settings.
Over the course of a year this survey was repeated every four months. Focused on men involved in sports activities like running, cycling, swimming, weightlifting and more. Many of these individuals were part of organizations dedicated to endurance training.
Although the study generated a wealth of data the main findings can be summarized as follows;
The intensity and duration of workouts had an impact on libido. Engaging in low to moderate intensity training for 1 to 16 hours per week seems to have an effect on maintaining a high libido. However when high intensity training is combined with durations the impact on libido becomes less clear. Sustained high intensity training can potentially lead to a decrease in libido.
According to Anthony Hackney, the researcher, males who participate in high intensity training may experience a decline in their sex drive. So if you're consistently training for marathons doing CrossFit style workouts for months at a time or engaging in cardio sessions five days a week you might notice a decrease in your libido.
While the Hackney study didn't extensively explore the effects of overtraining on testosterone levels previous research consistently links overtraining with resting hormone levels and reduced libido. This phenomenon is commonly known as Relative Energy Deficiency, in Sports (RED S). Can affect both men and women's reproductive health. In males specifically it is referred to as "Exercise Hypogonadal Male Condition."
The same phenomenon can be observed in women who have undergone training although there are some differences as discussed below.
Questioning the Notion; Additional Research, on Testosterone
You might argue, "But there are studies suggesting that exercise increases testosterone levels!". You would be correct. Exercise generally raises testosterone levels. Improves responsiveness in both men and women. However the extent of this increase depends on factors such as the number of sets and repetitions exercise order and notably the specific exercises chosen.
For example exercises that engage muscle groups like jump squats tend to result in a significant boost in testosterone levels compared to exercises like bench presses. Nonetheless this increase is often short lived for men lifting weights. Following workouts testosterone levels can even drop below their baseline and stay that way for days.
The relationship between cortisol and testosterone plays a role in this phenomenon. The increase in cortisol levels caused by exercise tends to decrease testosterone levels. This could potentially explain the standing issue of libido observed in Hackney's study.
While several theories exist to explain these workout declines, in testosterone levels none seem to align with the long term effects of chronic overtraining examined in Hackney's study.
The research conducted by Hackney primarily focused on the impact of overtraining on libido. However it is reasonable to assume that these findings would also apply to women.
Although most studies examining libido and arousal mainly investigate the effects of exercise sessions they aim to understand how exercise affects the response of female genitalia. These studies typically focus on exercise periods less than 45 minutes, rather than the prolonged and intense daily training routines associated with activities like CrossFit or marathon running.
In cases where women engage in overtraining a common issue is the disruption of the /hypothalamic axis. This disruption leads to decreased levels of testosterone and estrogen to what's observed in men. Additionally when body fat drops below a threshold ( around 11%) menstruation can cease and sexual desire may be replaced by an interest in therapeutic devices such as vibrating foam rollers.
Moreover musculoskeletal factors, like floor function can influence the well being of women who engage in chronic overtraining. After childbirth some women may experience a weakening of their floor muscles, which can make sexual intercourse less pleasurable.
On the side excessive training can cause tightness in the floor muscles leading to discomfort during sexual intercourse.
To address this issue it is important to relax and train the floor muscles. Women can achieve this through exercises and techniques. Once the pelvic floor regains its balance sexual pleasure tends to improve.
What to do about decreased libido due to exercise?
If intense and excessive exercise is negatively impacting your sex drive one possible solution is to reduce the intensity. Dr. Hackney suggests that while exercise can initially enhance libido pushing beyond a threshold may actually decrease it—a phenomenon he aptly refers to as the "inverted U" effect.
Experts generally recommend limiting high intensity workouts to CrossFit to around three times per week. Additionally taking a break from training can help reset the hypothalamic/ axis. However for those who're highly committed to their workout routines this may be easier said than done.
Alternatively there are ways to counteract the effects of training on libido. Ensuring sleep and proper nutrition should be a given. Men may also consider using supplements like Alpha, which can provide an increase in testosterone levels.
Ultimately it is important to strike an equilibrium, between activity and sexual desire. While engaging in exercise can positively impact one's responsiveness pushing oneself hard or, for too long, could potentially diminish libido. It is vital to have an understanding of one's body and its limitations to ensure the maintenance of a healthy and gratifying sex life.