Can Sex Take the Place of Exercise?

Whether you’re married, in a relationship, friends with benefits or a participant in the “hookup culture,” sex is a regular part of our society. I have been asked by clients, students and others I have conversed with when discussing health and fitness if sex counts as exercise. Sex is physical activity, and exercising is a form of physical activity. But can sex take the place of exercise? Before answering this question, let’s look at some of the health benefits you can gain from having sex.

Health Benefits from Sex

A study (1989-2012) conducted by the University of Chicago, surveying over 25,000 people, found sex frequency and general happiness are related. However, there is a caveat: findings revealed that this is true for couples having sex once per week; general happiness did not increase with more frequency. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior showed some promising news for older women (57-85 years of age) and sex. Having sex once or more per week decreased cardiovascular disease risk for women later in life. Unfortunately, this was the not case for older men. In fact, older men were found to have a greater risk of experiencing some form of cardiovascular disease. It is not all bad for men. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Urology found a higher frequency of ejaculation per month by men 18 and over resulted in a decreased risk in prostate cancer.
Sex can even have immediate benefits, such as reduction in pain (e.g., migraine, menstrual, back). And for those older adults who are beginning to lose their memory, a 2016 Oxford University study found improved cognition with regular sexual activity.  What about lowering stress and improving sleep? If you currently have sex, then you don’t need a study to tell you this.

Is Sex Enough for Overall Health?

So back to the original question: Can sex take the place of exercise? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests a minimum of 2.5 hours per week of moderate physical activity is needed for substantial health benefits. This is a combination of muscle and bone strengthening and aerobic exercise. If we consider that vigorous sexual activity can burn somewhere around 85-100 calories, according to WebMD, then it can be assumed that even if we did have sex regularly we still may not be burning enough calories to achieve optimal health. Why do I say this?  One study analyzing energy expenditure during sex found sex burns only about half the calories as moderate physical activity. This means that you would have to have sex for at least five hours per week just to meet the minimum guidelines put forward by the CDC. Of course, this doesn’t include strength training either (well, maybe for some). Let’s keep it real: On average, sex lasts six minutes and burns approximately 21 calories.
While sex provides many short and long-term health benefits, it seems to come up short as being the primary source of exercise. Because of its health benefits, sex could play a complementary role to your regular exercise program. However, nothing can replace a well-balanced exercise routine, combining the benefits of cardio and strength training.