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A word of caution for exercise fanatics: too much exercise may push your sex drive in the wrong direction.
How? By over-stressing your autonomic nervous system.
Here’s a quick physiology lesson: your autonomic nervous system operates on a continuum between two major settings. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the sympathetic side, which clicks on when you fight, flee or freeze; on the other, there’s the parasympathetic side, which kicks in when you need to rest, digest, recuperate or reproduce. The former, a high- stress setting, is catabolic: you burn calories, break down muscle tissue and get ready for a literal or figurative war. The latter, a low-stress setting, is anabolic: you’re rebuilding damaged muscle tissue, or kicking back after a long day, a hard workout or a big meal.
Most of the time, the autonomic nervous system works in a seesaw fashion: as the “ramp-up” sympathetic side turns on, the “cool-down” parasympathetic side turns off. We toggle easily between the two extremes — revving up into a sympathetic state when we work out hard, confront the boss, or meet a prospective client, then chilling back out to the parasympathetic side after we get home from work, hug our kids and have a nice meal.
However, when stress gets too overwhelming, our autonomic nervous system can get stuck on the “stressed-out and harried” setting. This is part of why it’s virtually impossible to get busy in the bedroom when you’re too busy out of it: you end up stuck in sympathetic overdrive, so your body, biologically, wants no part of rest, relaxation or reproducing. Instead, it’s afraid for its life. Because of this, we wind up feeling awful much of the time: run-down, frayed, nauseated and turned off.
Generally speaking, exercise is a powerful balancer of the autonomic nervous system — first it revs you up, then it leaves you feeling calmer and more centered. Too much exercise, however, may have the opposite effect. Exercise, after all, is a stressor — much like a major undertaking at work or an argument with a family member—and if you’re overtrained, burned-out and unable to recover from one workout to the next, your body remains in a catabolic state that kills libido and your sex drive.
So if you’re a compulsive exerciser, working out for many, many hours per week in hopes of developing the perfect physique, you may find that your desire and performance in the bedroom take a distressing nosedive as well as significantly decreasing your testosterone. There’s also a possibility that your exercise habits have tipped over into narcissism, and that your partner’s starting to sense that you’re lavishing too much attention on your own curves and not enough on hers. Either way, the solution is to back way off for a week or two, do some enjoyable, low-stress activities together for exercise and return to your workouts only after you feel ready. This should be when your sleep habits, appetite and sexual desire have returned to normal, your energy is high, and your mental attitude is on track.
Yoga may be your best bet for an exercise option during this time: the ancient practice has been shown to improve sexual functioning in both men and women. A 2010 study of sixty- five men, aged twenty-four to sixty, found that twelve weeks of yoga improved every aspect measured of sexual functioning, intercourse satisfaction, performance, confidence, partner sychronization, erection, ejaculatory control and orgasm. A concurrent study of women aged twenty-five to fifty-five had similar results: measures of desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction and pain all improved following the twelve-week yoga intervention.
Solution: Dial down on the intense workouts for a while, and de-stress with some yoga — ideally with your partner.
You can read more information about healthy living and peak performance as you age in my book: “Your New Prime: 30 Days to Better Sex, Eternal Strength, and a Kick Ass Life After 40”.