Maybe sex is the last thing on your mind when you’re stressed out. But it might help lower your anxiety. Sex seems to lessen the amount of hormones your body releases in response to stress. And an active sex life can make you happier and healthier, which might also help keep anxiety at bay.
Research says people who have sex once a month or less get heart disease more often than those who have it twice a week or so. Part of the reason could be that you get a bit more exercise and are less likely to be anxious or depressed. But it could also be that if you have more sex, you’re physically and mentally healthier in the first place.
Sex typically burns about 5 calories a minute. That’s about equal to a brisk walk. And you use a bit more oxygen too -- about the same as digging in the garden or walking down the stairs.
That may not seem like much, but it starts to add up over the long term. And because sex can improve your mental health, you might be more likely to do other types of exercise like the neighborhood kickball team, hiking, or housework.
Well, not so much lose them as forget where you put them. That’s because regular sex seems be linked to improved memory, especially if you’re between ages 50 and 89. It’s not clear why.
Weekly sex seems to boost your immune system compared to those who have it less often. Part of the reason may be that it raises levels of a germ-fighting substance called immunoglobulin A, or IgA. But more is not always better here. People who had sex more than twice a week had lower levels of IgA than those who had no sex.
Sex bathes your brain in a chemical “afterglow” that lasts about 2 days and helps to bond you to your partner over the long term. Without it, you could lose some of the satisfaction of your relationship. A healthy, happy sexual relationship -- couples who do it at least once a week seem to be happiest -- can help build trust and understanding between you and your partner.
The reasons aren’t exactly clear, but in at least one study, men who ejaculated less than seven times a month were more likely to get prostate cancer compared to those who did it at least 21 times a month.
But unprotected anonymous sex and multiple partners can also raise your chances for the disease, so when you do have sex, take care.
Without sex, you’ll miss out on the hormones that promote restful sleep, like prolactin and oxytocin. Women get an estrogen boost that helps even more. The reverse is true, too: If you decide you want to start having sex again, a good night’s sleep is just the thing to keep you feeling frisky.
Sex can be a good way to take your mind off of any aches and pains you have. But it does more than that. Orgasm causes your body to release endorphins and other hormones that can help ease head, back, and leg aches. They may help arthritis pain and menstrual cramps, too.
It may seem odd, but “use it or lose it” may apply here. For women at menopause, vaginal tissue can get thin, shrink, and dry out without regular intercourse. That can make sex painful and weaken your desire. And some research says men who have sex less than once a week are twice as likely to have erectile dysfunction (ED) as those who have it weekly.
Sex seems to help keep your blood pressure down. That makes sense when you consider what it does: It adds a bit of aerobic and muscle-building exercise, and it can ease anxiety and make you feel better. Both of those can help keep your numbers where they need to be.
Thomas Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Start out slow. It may be the last thing you want to do when you're feeling down, but exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain and can help ease depression symptoms. You don’t have to do too much, maybe just go for a short walk. If you can push yourself to do it a few days in a row, you may not need as much of a push the following day.
Walk or Run
You don’t have to run a marathon or be a speed demon. You don’t even have to run. Start with walking, and you can decide if you want to go faster as you get stronger. It’s not just the exercise that helps -- the great outdoors can lift your mood, too.
The fixed and moving poses of this meditative form of exercise can make you stronger and more flexible. That can give you energy and a sense of well-being. The breath control involved in yoga also can calm your emotions. You can look for videos online, but a class gets you out into the world and around other people.
Touching soil may boost a key brain chemical called serotonin, and that can help lift depression. You'll also be active and outside. If you don’t have a patch of dirt of your own, call a local community garden to see if you could work a plot there.
It’s good exercise and a great opportunity to let out some emotion without talking about your feelings. You can just hit the ball against a wall, but if you want it to come back across a net, you’ll need someone on the other side. That's a chance to socialize. And if you commit to a time with someone else, you’re more likely to stick to it.
Exercise at Work
If you need a distraction to get your mind off negative thoughts, take a few minutes and step away from your desk. Find a quiet place and do some stretching, or go up and down a flight of stairs -- anything that gets you moving can boost your mood.
It’s a great, whole-body workout, and some people find the water helps calm them. It doesn’t have to take a huge chunk out of your day: Just 30 minutes of exercise 3 to 5 times a week may be all you need.
You can get good exercise on a stationary one, but hitting the bike path is a great way to take in the world around you. You don’t need anything fancy -- any two-wheeler will do. Ride it to the store, the coffee shop, or your friend’s house. Just make sure to get it checked by a mechanic first, and don’t forget to wear a helmet.
You use weights, machines, or your own body resistance (like with pushups) to build strength, muscle mass, and flexibility. A simple set of hand weights will work, or even just the floor. The workout isn’t the only thing that improves your mood -- a sense of accomplishment and better body image can help, too.
Walk Your Dog
Fido can help ease your stress, and he may be just the motivator you need. Grab a leash and maybe a Frisbee and get out there. The fresh air won’t hurt, either.
It’s a win-win-win: exercise, social engagement, and fun. All those can lift your spirits, and you can start at home. While nobody’s watching, turn on a favorite track and let your body move to it. Even short dance sessions can feel good. As you gain your footing and confidence, check for classes at local dance schools or look for a group that gets together to dance.
You may need to work up to it, but three 20-second sprints, with 2-minute breaks in between, may be as good for you as 50 minutes of moderate jogging. And they can be a quick way to release some pent-up emotion. Just make sure you warm up -- and ask your doctor if you don’t know if you’re healthy enough for that kind of high-intensity workout.
It’s a great workout: You jog, sprint, jump, and throw. You can do it indoors and out, winter and summer, and in a large group or with just one other person. You can even shoot hoops by yourself.
The focus needed for a long game can help distract you from negative thoughts, and being part of a team adds a feeling of connection. And when you’ve got a whole team that expects you to show up, you’re more likely to, right?
Thomas Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist