By: Steven Nissen, MD
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Patients often ask me: Is sex good for your heart?
The question seems simple. The answer is complicated, in part because of the limits of what research can tell us. But we do have a strong sense that sex fits in with a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Below are answers to five common questions.
1. Is sex exercise?
Yes — but it’s not much exercise. You’re not going to burn your daily calories during an average sexual encounter (and few people want to admit to being average).
Assuming an average of five to 15 minutes for sex, you get about the same amount of activity as walking a mile in 20 minutes. The partner on top reaches a heart rate of around 120. The partner on the bottom reaches about 110.
In other words, you get a minimum of cardiovascular exercise from sex. Don’t count on it as your only workout.
2. Is sex good for your heart?
You’re not going to burn your daily calories during an average sexual encounter (and few people want to admit to being average).
Probably. For example, one study found that men who had sex twice a week or more were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those who had sex once a month or less. Research like this typically focuses on men because more men have heart disease. But we generally apply the same reasoning to women, too.
Studies such as this do not prove that sex prevents heart disease. But they do suggest sex is part of an overall heart-healthy lifestyle. We tend to think of sex as a “marker” for your health. If you’re having more sex, there’s a good chance you are fitter and more active to begin with. And if you’re too out of shape to enjoy sex, that may be motivation for lifestyle changes.
3. Will anyone prove sex is good for your heart?
Probably not. For example, observational studies can establish a correlation. But they can’t prove a cause-effect relationship.
To prove cause and effect, you need a randomized clinical trial with a control group that abstains from sex for a long time period. This seems unlikely. It’s one reason among many that we can say sex is probably good for your heart — but we can’t say it definitively.
4. If you have heart disease, is sex risky?
Not in the vast majority of cases. Patients often ask this after a heart attack or diagnosis of heart disease. If you’re fit enough for sex, we encourage it.
Your blood pressure will go up during sex, typically to a peak of around 160/90. That’s comparable to what happens during a brisk run for a few minutes, and it goes back down afterward.
There has been evidence that sex with an unfamiliar partner — like sex outside of a marriage — can be risky for men with heart disease. Men have even died during sex, but it is rare.
5. Does sex benefit your overall health?
Yes, it likely does. Even if it’s not a high-intensity workout, regular sex can be a rewarding part of an overall healthy lifestyle. It can make you happier, more relaxed and less stressed.
Put simply: Sex is probably helpful to your heart and overall health. And because it’s not harmful to your heart (except in rare cases), “probably” might be all the answer you need.