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updated 1/16/2004 3:32:42 PM ET 2004-01-16T20:32:42

Thought about leading a healthier lifestyle but haven't gotten around to doing it? Here's a possible incentive: Experts say people who are mentally and physically fit are more likely to have good sex lives.

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"If you feel good about yourself, you are in a better position to feel good about relationships, including your sex life," says Karen Zager, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in New York City.

"When one is not feeling well, and is exhausted, it can certainly have a negative impact on the quality of one's sex life," says Dr. Saralyn Mark, a senior medical adviser at the Office on Women's Health.

This may all seem intuitive, yet many people find the road to a fitter mind and body to be bumpy, especially if involves losing weight, starting an exercise program, reducing stress, or getting enough sleep.

One big reward, though, is to look and feel better -- arguably a plus for good romantic and sensual activities.

Eat right
While there is no proven connection between a balanced diet and bedroom performance, a poor diet can cause health problems that can possibly interfere with sex.

Studies show animals that get too few calories tend to have weakened immune systems, says John Allred, Ph.D., professor emeritus of nutrition at Ohio State University. He says illness can be a big hurdle for pleasurable intercourse.

"If you have heart disease, then you might be taking medication that would inhibit sexual activity, or you might be afraid to have a heart attack," says Allred. "If you have the flu, a high fever, or just don't feel good ... any of these things would be a turn-off."

Mark Kantor, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland, agrees, saying, "You will feel sexy if you look and feel good."

A way to do that is to eat an overall balanced diet and to exercise each day. The two go hand-in-hand, says Kantor, as demonstrated by today's obesity problem, in which people eat too much food and aren't active enough.

Move that body
Being physically active can be a natural Viagra boost, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), which recommends 20 to 30 minutes of moderate exertion a day.

"Men and women who exercise regularly are going to have increased levels of desire," says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., ACE's chief exercise physiologist. "They're going to have enhanced confidence, enhanced ability to achieve orgasm, and greater sexual satisfaction."

If that isn't motivation enough to work out, consider this: Researchers have found that there is a correlation between waist size and a man's odds of having erectile dysfunction (ED). The larger the man's waist size, the greater his chance of having ED (because of a higher risk of underlying cardiovascular disease).

Need more positive reinforcement? Studies show that regular, moderate exercise can have a positive benefit on major sexual problems, such as ED in men and low libido in both men and women.

It only makes sense, say experts, since ED is often caused by poor blood flow to the penis, and exercise can improve the body's ability to pump and circulate blood throughout the body.

The same can be true for the ladies. In one University of Texas at Austin study, physically active women who watched an X-rated film had a 169 percent greater blood flow to the vagina compared with when they were inactive.

And there's more good news. Mark says exercise can promote the body's release of hormones important for sexual arousal, increase aerobic capacity and muscle strength, and boost self-body image -- all definite benefits for between-the-sheets play.

Sweet dreams
For many of us, a good roll in the sack requires energy and the right mood -- elements that can be compromised when we are sleepy or tired.

While there is no direct relationship between slumber and better sex, a National Sleep Foundation (NSF) poll, conducted in 2002, shows people's moods can be affected by the amount of shut-eye they get.

People who sleep less than six hours are more likely to report they are tired, stressed, sad, and angry than those who sleep more than eight hours. On the other hand, those with few sleep problems tend to report they are "full of energy," "relaxed," and "happy."

In his practice, Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of the Northside Hospital Sleep Medicine Institute in Atlanta, says chronic sleep-loss patients report not only being too physically tired for sex, but also having decreased libido.

Unfortunately, lower sex drive, tiredness, and grouchiness are the least of worries with sleep deprivation. Research shows people who don't catch enough winks tend to:

  • Get into more accidents. Inadequate sleep affects perception and motor skills.
  • Find it harder to lose weight. Not enough shut-eye can affect the body's ability to metabolize carbohydrates.
  • Have an increased chance of a hormonal or metabolic disorder, which can indirectly put you at risk for medical problems such as type II diabetes and heart disease.

All of these consequences could undoubtedly put a damper on a person's sex life.

Rosenberg recommends trying to increase your total sleep time, even if it's just adding a half-hour or more per week. "Try it, and see how it affects your sex life," he says.

Relax
The brain may be the most important sex organ of all. It is perhaps in the mind where beliefs take hold and flourish about the effects of certain foods on sexual prowess, even as scientists deny any direct connection between diet and erotic fitness.

It is in the mind that people feel self-confident when they like the effects of exercise on their bodies. It is also where they feel happy and energized once they've gotten enough sleep.

Yet the inner workings of the brain can also keep a person from focusing on the delights of bedroom actions.

"In order to have a really healthy and pleasurable sex life, you have to be able to dismiss work; you have to be able to unwind and experience pleasure," says Zager. She says this means being able to temporarily forget about what your boss said, what was in the memo, what bills need to be paid, and what the children need.

Sex requires relaxation and time, adds Zager, noting that some couples may be too stressed and busy to enjoy or even have intercourse. She suggests setting priorities.

"Just how important is sex to you and your partner?" asks Zager. If it is vital to your relationship, she advises finding a way to work it into your schedule and working on making yourself less stressed or tired.

Some recommendations include eliminating some activities from your busy life, delegating jobs to someone else (by giving it to a partner, or hiring someone to do it), and doing an across-the-board cut in time spent on each activity.

To unwind, Zager suggests taking 5 to 30 minutes either to walk, meditate, take a hot bath, do yoga, or sit by yourself. This time can help charge personal batteries and can help make transitions between your work, family, and sex life.

Here's to your bedroom health
Living healthy may, indeed, have its benefits. If you eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, sleep enough, and take time to relax, there's a good chance your life between the sheets will improve.

Of course, there is no guarantee. But, as Zager says, it all forms a really good foundation.

"If you've got a good foundation of stress management, and setting your priorities, and taking good care of yourself, then on top of that, you can build relationships with other people and an enjoyable sex life," she says.


Dulce Zamora is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Daily Variety and on CBSHealthWatch.com, MedscapeHealth.com, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, and FOX. She received a Master's degree in Journalism from the University of Southern California, and Bachelor's degree in Rhetoric from the University of California at Berkeley.

© 2013 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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