how fitness can impact your sex life

Is your fitness regime ruining your sex life?

Posted by for Wellbeing

Exercise does us so much good, but there can come a point when the dose becomes too potent – especially when it comes to sex, argues Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi. 

Regular exercise improves just about every part of life. It improves lung capacity, mental health and sleep quality. It helps us to concentrate at work and can result in new friendships and communities. And there’s also a load of evidence that suggests being active can improve our sex lives.

Aerobic activity, for example, increases blood flow to the whole body; by activating the sympathetic nervous system, blood flow is encouraged to the genital region – which means increased lubrication. Most forms of exercise reduce stress, with research showing that even low levels of physical activity tend to elevate mood. And a 2003 study, published in the journal Prevention, even found that it can be a kind of aphrodisiac, with women experiencing a higher sex drive and level of sexual satisfaction following 20 minutes of intense exercise. 

So far, so good. But exercise can be a potent medicine which, if prescribed at the wrong dose, can have a negative impact on nearly every part of our wellbeing – including sex. We’ve spoken before about how being ‘too fit’ can disrupt your hormones and periods. We also know that excessive exercise can reduce our mental wellbeing, but did you know that it can also totally destroy your libido?

I’ve been there. A few years ago, months after I’d been smashing daily workouts at a body transformation gym, my libido was rock bottom. I put that down to having a ‘naturally low libido’ – despite that historically not having been the case. When I eventually had my hormone levels checked after my periods stopped, it transpired that my sex hormones were rock bottom, while my cortisol level was sky-high. Physical stress – the exercise that kept me mentally and emotionally together – had reduced my capacity for intimacy. 

Your hormones start to ‘downregulate’ after a certain amount of exercise

And that’s a pretty common story, says Renee McGregor, a leading sports dietitian. “If your energy availability is good and everything is in working order, then you may find that being fit actually improves your libido and you start to enjoy sex a lot more because you’ve got the energy and stamina to do it. But the problem is, if you’ve got relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) or are over-doing the exercise, your hormones start to become downregulated.”

All too often, we don’t appreciate the role oestrogen plays in our bodies. “It impacts so much more than periods,” she says. “It can affect libido. With postmenopausal women, we know that libido drops with many experiencing vaginal dryness. With hypothermic amenorrhea (period loss), if you were looking on an ultrasound, you’d see a very thin uterine lining as well. So everything gets affected, including not being interested in sex.”

Why isn’t low libido spoken about more in the fitness industry

Sex, McGregor argues, plays a fundamental role in our wellbeing. “It’s more than just a biological need. Sex creates lots of hormones, connections and a sense of safety within a relationship too. If we neglect how we feel, we also neglect our physical, sexual and emotional wellbeing. We end up avoiding the kind of intimacy that is so important for just being happy and healthy.”

Given that low libido can be a sign of hormonal disruption, why don’t we hear more about it in health and fitness circles? We’re rubbish at talking about sex in Britain, for a start. 

And McGregor believes that there’s also an issue with coaches and PTs not having the basic knowledge required to help women understand these kinds of symptoms. “With the level of training and qualification they get, they will not be aware of hormonal downregulation, so they won’t necessarily see it as a sign worth explaining and talking about.”

There’s more to sports hormones than testosterone

We talk a lot about testosterone in the sports world because it’s a banned substance that’s known to enhance performance. If we don’t eat enough, you get a downregulation of testosterone, and that impacts our ability to perform physically – both on the track/in the gym and in the bedroom. But the industry never flags the importance of oestrogen or oxytocin. Sexism might explain the former; testosterone impacts men directly so we know a lot more about it (97% of sports studies are conducted on men)… but oxytocin impacts everyone.

Oxytocin is the hormone that is released when you have an orgasm, the hormone you release when you kiss someone and the one that makes you feel like you belong, McGregor explains. It’s a feel-good hormone. If we train too hard, we disrupt our production of oxytocin. 

“Often people who have no energy availability isolate themselves further and further, and that then feeds back into the mindset of ‘I’m not good enough, I need to push harder’,” McGregor says. “When we’re isolated, that’s when our negative thoughts are most dominant. And that’s why we saw such a big increase in people struggling with exercise dependency and eating disorders during the pandemic. Because we’re all isolated, we didn’t have the connections.”

Sex is important for self-esteem, happiness and body image

We know, for example, that regular sex is linked with higher self-esteem with studies showing that having more sex tends to lead to increased body confidence. McGregor works with a lot of professional athletes and while she couldn’t prescribe sex as such, talking about sex and appetite are fundamental parts of her work. “I help them understand if there’s a reason why they’re not wanting sex.

“It could be because a couple is drifting apart, but I’ll look at their bloods, how much exercise they do and work out whether they’ve got enough oestrogen. If they don’t, it’s not going to be a surprise that they’re not having sex. I’ve had clients come back to me (after eating more and moving less) saying that their libido is back – and that’s great.”

For more fitness and wellbeing stories, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

Sign up for workouts, nutritious recipes and expert tips, plus our Strong Women magazine with expert advice on building strength & resilience sent to your inbox.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Share this article

Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.