By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
Recent reports on the success of the impotence drug Viagra included warnings of potentially serious side effects. The list included an increased risk of heart attack caused by a sudden surge in physical activity. Apparently, the 4,000 men included in the clinic trials did not have too many runners in their ranks.
The link between running and sexual activity is a dichotomy worthy of serious consideration. First, there is the impact of running on sexual activity. Then, there is the impact of sexual activity on running.
Several studies on aging have provided evidence that older people who are physically active lead long active sexual lives. Runners, swimmers and bicyclists who engage in vigorous exercise are twice as active sexually as their sedentary peers. The explanations for the positive impact of exercise on sexual activity are both physiological and psychological.
On the physiological front, aerobically fit athletes are better equipped to handle the physical demands of sex. The five calories burned each minute during intercourse may stress a sedentary person but are negligible when compared to the 10 calories burned each minute by a runner. Similarly, the increases in blood pressure and heart rate may strain a sedentary cardio-vascular system but have no adverse effect on an endurance athlete. Other studies also suggest a direct correlation between physical activity and testosterone levels in men, leading to a higher level of sexual activity.
On the psychological front, physical activity enhances one's disposition and relieves depression and anxiety. An additional benefit of fitness is a healthy-looking body, a bounce in the step, and a sense of accomplishment. The chemical effects of aerobic activity on brain function, known as the runner's high, give an extended sense of euphoria. As such, fit athletes have a positive outlook, appear more confident, and enjoy better self-esteem, resulting in a more fulfilling sexual life.
Taken to the extreme, physical activity may adversely affect sexual activity. Runners who overtrain become lethargic and irritable and suffer from chronic fatigue. This condition is far from conducive to an active sexuality and may trap the athlete in a vicious circle of frustration and anxiety.
Runners who marry non-runners may face additional problems with their intimacy. Problems often arise when either partner views running as a substitute for affection and as a threat to the marriage. Studies have shown that runners who train longer than 70 miles per week are twice as likely as non-runners to end their marriage in a divorce.
While the impact of running on sexual activity is generally positive, there is less definitive evidence on the impact of sexual activity on running. In ancient Greece, athletes were strictly prohibited from engaging in sexual activity, which was believed to sap the athlete's strength. Early training books grouped drinking, smoking and sexual activity as vices that must be avoided.
Most running books avoid discussing the subject of sexual activity before competition. There are two plausible explanations: the question may be a non-issue or it may be a sensitive issue. Either way, the literature is full of reports of athletes boasting of sexual indulgences preceding record-setting performances.
It is evident to any competitive athlete, regardless of fitness level, that competition brings about stress and tension. If engaging in normal sexual activity prior to competition relaxes the body and eases the tension, then it can only have a positive impact on performance. If, on the other hand, performance in bed is used as a gauge to forecast performance on the track, then the athlete is flirting with disappointment.
Legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel summed it up nicely when he said: "It is not the sex, but staying up all night looking for it, that fatigues the athlete."
Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.