Benefits of love and sex

Besides a heart full of love and a big smile, romance can bring some positive health benefits.

Some scientific studies suggest that a loving relationship, physical touch and sex can bring health benefits such as lower blood pressure. Of course, no relationship can guarantee health and happiness, but cupid's arrow can send you some health boosts.

Sex is good for your heart

Want to get healthy and have fun at the same time? Anything that exercises your heart is good for you, including sex. Sexual arousal sends the heart rate higher, and the number of beats per minute reaches its peak during orgasm.  

But as with most exercise, it depends how vigorously you do it. Some studies show that the average peak heart rate at orgasm is the same as during light exercise, such as walking upstairs. That's not enough to keep most people fit and healthy.

Adults should do at least 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week.

Unless you’re lucky enough to have 150 minutes of orgasms a week, try cycling, brisk walking or dancing.

Having heart disease doesn’t have to hold you back in the bedroom. Experts advise that you can usually have sex as long as you can do the everyday activities that have the same impact on your heart without causing chest pain, such as walking up two flights of stairs.

Source: Rerkpattanapipat P, Stanek MS, MN Kotler. Sex and the heart: what is the role of the cardiologist? European Heart Journal 2001;22: 201-208.

A hug keeps tension away

Embracing someone special can lower blood pressure, according to researchers. In one experiment, couples who held each other’s hands for 10 minutes followed by a 20-second hug had healthier reactions to subsequent stress, such as public speaking. Compared to couples who rested quietly without touching, the huggers had: 

  • lower heart rate 
  • lower blood pressure
  • smaller heart rate increases

So give your partner a hug - it may help to keep your blood pressure healthy.

Similar effects have been found for non-sexual stroking, although this appears only to reduce blood pressure in women who are stroked, not men.

Source: Grewen KM, Anderson BJ, Girdler SS, Light KC. Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. Behavioural Medicine, 2003;29:123-30.

Sex can be a stress buster

Workload too high? Hot and bothered after the morning journey to work? Sex could help you beat the stresses of 21st century living, according to a small study of 46 men and women.

Participants kept a diary of sexual activity, recording penetrative sex, non-penetrative sex and masturbation. In stress tests, including public speaking and doing mental arithmetic out loud, the people who had no sex at all had the highest stress levels. People who only had penetrative sex had the smallest rise in blood pressure. This shows that they coped better with stress. 

Plenty of people find that intimacy or orgasm without penetration helps them feel relaxed, as do exercise or meditation. It doesn't have to be penetrative sex; it's whatever works for you.

Source: Brody S. Blood pressure reactivity to stress is better for people who recently had penile-vaginal intercourse than for people who had other or no sexual activity. Biological Psychology, 2006;71:214-22.

Weekly sex might help fend off illness

There’s a link between how often you have sex and how strong your immune system is, researchers say. A study in Pennsylvania found that students who had sex once or twice a week had higher levels of an important illness-fighting substance in their bodies. Immunoglobulin A (IgA) was 30% higher in those who had sex once or twice a week than in those who had no sex at all. However, the lowest levels were in people who had sex more than twice a week.

But don’t devise a sex calendar just yet. More research is needed before it can be proved that weekly sex helps your immune system. Another study found that stroking a dog resulted in raised IgA levels in students (resting quietly or stroking a stuffed dog didn’t).

Sources: Charnetski CJ, Brennan FX. Sexual frequency and salivary immunoglobulin A (IgA). Psychology Report, 2004;94:839-44.

Charnetski CJ, Riggers S, Brennan FX. Effect of petting a dog on immune system function. Psychology Report, 2004;95:1087-91.

People who have sex feel healthier

It could be that people who feel healthier have more sex, but there seems to be a link between sexual activity and your sense of wellbeing. A study of 3,000 Americans aged 57-85 showed that those who were having sex rated their general health higher than those who weren’t.

And it’s not just sex, it's love too. People who were in a close relationship or married were more likely to say they felt in ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ health than just ‘good’ or ‘poor’. It seems that emotional and social support can boost our sense of wellbeing.

Source: Lindau ST, Schumm LP, Laumann EO, et al. A Study of Sexuality and Health among Older Adults in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine. 2007;357:762-74.

Loving support reduces risk of angina and ulcer

A happy marriage can help to fend off angina and stomach ulcer - at least it can if you’re a man.

One study of 10,000 men found that those who felt ‘loved and supported’ by their spouse had a reduced risk of angina. This was the case even if they had other risk factors, such as being older or having raised blood pressure.

Similarly, a study of 8,000 men found there was more chance of them getting a duodenal ulcer if they:

  • had family problems 
  • didn’t feel loved and supported by their wife
  • didn’t retaliate when hurt by colleagues. (In other words, they repressed their anger. Researchers called this their ‘coping style’)

Researchers suggest that stress, lack of social support and coping style can affect a man’s likelihood of developing an ulcer.

Sources: Medalie JH, Goldbourt U. Angina pectoris among 10,000 men. II. Psychosocial and other risk factors as evidenced by a multivariate analysis of a five-year incidence study. American Journal of Medicine, 1976;60:910-21.

Medalie JH, Stange KC, Zyzanski SJ, Goldbourt U. The importance of biopsychosocial factors in the development of duodenal ulcer in a cohort of middle-aged men. American Journal of Epidemiology, 1992;136:1280-7.

And if you’re single…

Spending an evening with friends is good for your health too.

One 10-year study of 1,500 people over 70 years old found that those with stronger friendship networks lived longer than those with fewer friends. Researchers thought this could be due to friends having a positive influence on lifestyle choices, such as smoking or exercise, and offering emotional support.

Source: Giles LC, Glonek GF, Luszcz MA, Andrews GR. Effect of social networks on 10-year survival in very old Australians: the Australian longitudinal study of aging. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2005;59:574-9.

Or celibate…

A life without sex is no bar to excellent health. A long-term study into the health and ageing of a group of nearly 700 older nuns found that many are keeping active and well into their 90s and past 100.

Since 1986, participants in The Nun Study have had yearly checks on their physical and mental abilities. Researchers have used convent records to obtain their social, family and educational background. While they’ve found some links between lifestyle and dementia (for example, higher education or positive emotions in early life might cut the risk of dementia), this isn't linked to sexual activity.

Find out more about The Nun Study.

If you do have sex, using a condom will protect you and your partner against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancy. 

A healthy sex life

A sexual psychotherapist gives advice on how to have a healthy and fulfilling sexual relationship.

Media last reviewed: 07/01/2013

Next review due: 07/01/2015

Page last reviewed: 10/01/2012

Next review due: 10/01/2014

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