updated 10/17/2005 7:12:42 PM ET 2005-10-17T23:12:42

Losing a little weight can do wonders for your sex life.

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So says Duke University psychologist Martin Binks, who presented a study Monday at a meeting of The Obesity Society showing that shedding a few pounds can improve things in the bedroom by making people feel better about their bodies.

“You reap a lot of benefit from a moderate weight loss of 10 percent,” Binks said. “It’s a wonderful message. You don’t have to reach some ideal weight to be healthy and happy.”

It is one of the few studies to examine the mental and emotional problems that obesity can cause for intimacy, not just the physical troubles such as hormone imbalances or impotence.

“There has not been a lot of research in this area,” said Dr. Susan Yanovski, director of obesity research at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Improving your sex life “would be another good reason to lose weight if you’re obese.”

The study involved 161 women and 26 men, average age 45, with an average body mass index of 41. (A score of 30 or above on this height-and-weight formula is considered obese).

All were enrolled in a diet program at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and had lost 17.5 percent of their body weight after one year and 13 percent after two years. (They regained some of the pounds they initially shed).

Improvements in self-esteem
They answered questions about the quality of their sex lives when the study began and every three months thereafter. The most striking improvement in attitudes was seen at three months, when they had lost about 12 percent of their initial weight.

At the outset, 68 percent of women said they felt sexually unattractive. One year into the diet, only 26 percent did. About 63 percent originally did not want to be seen undressed, but only 34 percent felt that way a year later.

Initially, 21 percent of women said they were not enjoying sex; only 11 percent said so after one year.

“The number of males in the study does limit what we can say about men,” but feelings of unattractiveness and unwillingness to be seen naked also applied to them, Binks said. Even when many of them wanted to have sex, the excess weight made it an ordeal.

“They’ll tell us about simple mechanical difficulty,” Binks said.

That certainly was true of Carlene Wellington, 62, and her husband, Gary, 63, of suburban Tacoma, Wash. Both were a healthy weight when they married 42 years ago, until she started to “show love” by cooking massive amounts of food. She and her husband ballooned to 237 and 355 pounds, respectively, and their sex life suffered.

'600 pounds in our bed'
“We had about 600 pounds in our bed,” she said.

“I called it my workbench,” because sex was so physically difficult, he said.

Carlene Wellington was embarrassed by her body.

“I could get dressed without showing any skin,” and had to have the lights off when they had sex, she said. During sex, she often felt pressure in her chest, caused by anxiety and dread.

She now weighs 153 pounds, and her tall husband a trim 235. “It’s just like being married to a different person, or going back 25 years,” she said.

Her husband recalled the day 13 years ago — after the couple had just lost a combined 200 pounds — when he looked at wife one morning and told her she had a cute butt.

“I don’t know if she thought I was trying to make her late for work or not,” he said. But he was struck by how much he wanted to.

The Wellingtons are leaders in their local chapter of TOPS, or Take Off Pounds Sensibly, an international support group that had a display at the obesity conference in Vancouver.

The prospect of a better sex life could motivate some overweight people to shed pounds, said Dr. Ahmed Kissebah, an obesity expert at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and medical adviser to TOPS.

In overweight young women in particular, “We see some form of frigidity. They’re afraid of interacting” physically, Kissebah said.

Binks said: “We are encouraging health care providers to open the atmosphere and encourage conversations” about these issues.

Gary Wellington said such openness would help.

“The term 'love is blind' is true,” he said. But now that he and his wife have both lost weight, “things work better,” and sex is again a joy, he said.

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