Not Tonight Honey
Physique honed, but sex life sagging? Maybe you should change the focus of your workouts.
From Women’s Sports and Fitness
By Jean Weiss
You thought that as you grew older, it would only get better. Lingering in bed on Sunday mornings, not even thinking about reading the newspaper. Hikes that are less about mileage and more about finding a secluded spot where you can spread out a blanket. A quickie atop the mountain bike leaning against the wall of your mudroom.
Not quite, you say? Not lately?
If your days as a sexual siren are only a memory, ask yourself this: Have you changed your training program lately? If you have, it could be the cause of your libido’s lollygag.
The Object of Desire
Sexual desire is a tricky subject because it’s difficult to isolate the hows and whys of what you feel, when so many variables come into play. The simplified link between exercise and libido is that people who work out report better sex lives. The enhancement is probably due to an improved body image.
“Research has shown that amount of exercise positively correlates with frequency of sexual behaviors,” says Teresa King, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University School of Medicine. “When you exercise, you orient more on how your body functions. You appreciate it more for what it does, rather than holding it up to a media standard.”
In other words, the sturdy thighs that you once tried to conceal are now the reason you last longer than everyone else on the soccer field; those extra stores of fat on your body become useful during a long mountaineering trip; your flat chest is perfect for running. Who wouldn’t want to proudly share those assets with somebody else? The flip side is that too much exercise can decrease your sexual interest. Is that really so bad? The answers are yes and no.
You Want My Sex?
Before we get too far, it’s time to play the numbers game and put this sex thing into perspective. First, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to how much you want and when. One person’s sexual Super Bowl could add up to another’s skimpiest Sunday. There’s nothing wrong with you if you desire sex infrequently. What matters is if both you and your partner are satisfied.
“There are people who come in to see me thinking they are abnormal, when in fact they aren’t,” says Dr. Mona M. Shangold, director of The Center for Women’s Health and Sports Gynecology in Philadelphia. “They are comparing themselves to other people who are no more normal than they. Some people are in monogamous relationships where they have intercourse more frequently than once a day. Others are in relationships where they desire it once a month or less. The problem comes when partners are different. When one partner desires sexual activity more or less frequently than the other.”
More to the point is whether you’ve strayed from what used to be normal for you. When you stop craving sex the way you once did, you might want to know why.
It’s Not the Meat, It’s the Emotion
A drastic change in libido, whether an increase or a decrease, could be caused by exercise. On the other hand, the extent to which you are exercising could instead be a symptom of a larger emotional issue.
It’s no secret that exercise alters a person’s hormonal balance. This is more pronounced in athletes working out at an extreme level. If a woman is training rigorously enough to stop menstruating, for example, hormone imbalances could cause a change in her libido, too.
Hormonal changes caused by a more typical exercise program or even a rigorous workout regime would most likely not be enough to affect you libido, according to Shangold. Because exercise typically enhances sex, it’s more likely that women athletes who are experiencing a lag in libido do so for emotional reasons.
“Libido in men is dependent both on testosterone levels and on psychological factors; probably testosterone levels are more important,” says Shangold. “In women, psychological factors are the major determinant of libido. Testosterone levels have a tiny amount to do with it, at best. Women with higher testosterone levels don’t necessarily have a higher libido than women with lower testosterone levels.”
Psychologist and sex therapist Linda DeVillers, author of the book Love Skills, says that people who are turned off by sex are likely to be actively suppressing their interest, even if they’re unaware of doing so. “One of the biggest sources, especially among women who are in their early 30s, is accumulated resentment against their partner,” she says. “Women who get turned off are often turned off because they are angry, in some way, shape or form, and they haven’t been able to gracefully but directly let their partners know what they like and don’t like, both in bed and out of bed.”
Accumulated stress is another factor that can turn you off of sex. Holding down a full-time job or raising a family are enough to cause fatigue. Adding a rigorous schedule of exercise can push you over the top.
“We’re trying to balance everything,” says sports gynecologist Patty Kulpa. “And sometimes we have nothing left. We’re too tired at the end of the day. The last thing you want is to have intercourse.”
It’s perfectly normal to allow sex to take a backseat to exercise sometimes. It’s a red flag, though, if you habitually choose your workout over sex. A compulsive or obsessed approach to exercise can be a symptom that you are avoiding emotional issues. “There are people who can get just as compulsive about exercise as they are about eating,” says Lana Holstein, M.D., a specialist in women’s health and sexuality counseling. “They can become what I would call hyper-exercisers. Our society tends to tolerate that obsession fairly benignly. Those individuals can be consumed by exercise like any other addiction. They may not have room for lovemaking because they are driven,”
Coaxing Back Babezilla
She was there once; she can be there again. The good news is, if you think exercise is affecting your libido, you already have the skills needed to regain your sexuality. Treat sex the same as you world a workout. Start, even when you don’t feel like it.
“We expect to be overwhelmed with sexual desire, and often we are not. We’re too busy or too stressed,” says Holstein. “Often the way you approach sexuality may be the same way you approach exercise. When you wake up in the morning, do you want to exercise? No. ‘Well,” you say, ‘I’ll go out for five minutes.’ Once you do, you say, ‘Oh this isn’t so bad.’ Usually after 25 or 30 minutes, you are glad you did.”
Holstein also suggests looking for ways to be sexual beyond engaging in out-and-out lovemaking, like a sensual kiss, or a suggestive brush when you pass your partner in the hallway. “That way you are always feeling the sexual connection,” she says. “When you want to really engage in sex, then you have already made a lot of deposits in the bank account.”
Sometimes, though, it’s okay to let that love connection fizzle. You might choose to be passionately focused on something else for a while. The key is discerning what’s healthy, and what’s not, which has a margin that is just as individual as sex drive. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, licensed psychologist Rosalie Thomas, Ph.D., suggests paying attention to your long-term standard. If exercise is, over the short term, interfering with a sex drive that’s typical for you, don’t sweat it. If exercise has displaced your sexual desire for an extended period, say for more than a few months (or if you’re an elite athlete, for more than six months) then it’s time to examine why.
“We all go in sprints in terms of focus,” says Thomas. “Obsession is different from a focus or clear goal. The threshold here is probably individual. It depends on the goal. If you’re getting in shape to run a marathon and you’ve never run one before, six months, or even a year, is not unreasonable. But if you’re an elite athlete, if you are already in good shape and this is what you do all the time, then to focus on training for your marathons to the exclusion of everything else would be unreasonable. It’s always an issue of balance.”