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The reason why a hop on the stationary bike or a circuit weight training session can boost a man's bedroom performance is that E.D. is mostly a plumbing problem caused by a lack of blood flow to the penis.

Thomas Bruckman, executive director of the American Foundation for Urologic Disease in Baltimore, claims "to the extent that exercise increases your ability to pump blood and boost circulation, it helps your sexual function." And it's cheaper than the medical equivalent of calling Dyno-Rod (e.g., penile implants). Moreover, Dr. Irwin Goldstein of the Boston University School of Medicine, who also worked on the Male Ageing Study, says that "impotence can be an early warning sign of heart artery disease, since the penis is more sensitive to blockages in blood flow than the heart." So if you exercise, you reduce not only your risk of Erectile Dysfunction, but other medical conditions that can put a much bigger crimp in your love life.


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SEXUAL ATHLETES

Besides blood flow improvement, science is demonstrating other physiological links between exercise and sexual health. According to Arthur Leon, a professor at the University of Minnesota who wrote of the health benefits of exercise in the US Surgeon General's 1996 report, recent scientific data suggests that exercise increases the synthesis of nitric oxide, a substance in blood vessels that Viagra and similar drugs help manufacture, and that boosts potency.

And in a recent study conducted at the University of North Carolina's Applied Physiology lab, Dr. A.C. Hackney found that athletes who exercised at 70 percent of their VO2 max experienced a 40 percent increase in free-testosterone, a 38 percent increase in cortisol, and a (TK) increase in epinephrine. These higher hormonal levels all result in heightened sexual arousal.

Exercise also has an impact on your quality-of-sex-life by reducing joint and muscle pain, says Richard Cotton, exercise physiologist with First Fitness, Inc., and an ACE spokesperson. "You become more flexible and more free of pain from backaches and such. All of these things allow you to have sex and not hurt yourself." (Always a top priority.)

JUMP START YOUR LIBIDO

Exercise isn't a gender-biased sex aid, either; it can help women jump-start their libido, too, says Dr. Cindy Meston, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Meston researched 35 young women (ages 18-34) who on two separate occasions, watched first a travel film, then an X-rated film (edited to five minutes in Meston's lab, she says). The first time they cycled vigorously for 20 minutes, the second time they didn't. Meston measured their sexual response, using a device that measures blood flow in genital tissue, and found that after exercising, the women's vaginal responses were 169 percent greater.

Meston says that while the study didn't compare differences in fitness levels, "it showed that when you do cardio exercise, it not only elevates your blood pressure and heart rate and increases vascularity all over the body, but also seems to facilitate sexual performance." Meston says that exercise also enhances libido by stimulating the nervous system. "Of course, a good shot of espresso might have the same effect, but only for an hour or two." (In an emergency, if you can't hit the gym, there's always Starbuck's.)

Meston also emphasizes that while short-term (acute) exercise enhances one's sex life for the aforementioned reasons, chronic (long-term) exercise helps remove the serious psychological obstacles to sexual pleasure.

LOSE WEIGHT

As many weight-challenged people know, one's sex life is often at the mercy of poor self- esteem and body image, which often stem from obesity. Patricia Esperon, a behavioural therapist at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. who teaches a class there on the relationship between sexuality and weight, says that being overweight creates many issues that stifle both libido and performance. "My overweight clients may feel they're invisible," she says. "Or they use their weight as a defense against being sexual or involved with someone." The problems multiply once they start a relationship. "If one half of a couple starts losing weight, the other might fear infidelity. Some people may refuse to lose the weight so they won't engage in infidelity. Lastly, when you don't feel good about yourself, you generally don't have much of a sex drive."

When you tack on the physiological effects of obesity on sexual performance - diabetes, hypertension, a lack of stamina, and hygiene problems - obesity can mean a long exile to a Siberia of celibacy and frustration.

JOIN A GYM

That's where exercise can help, says Dr. Richard Balon, a professor of psychiatry at the Wayne State University School of Medicine Detroit, MI. "People who work out generally feel a lot better about themselves." Cotton adds that once you regain self-esteem, "You're going to be less inhibited and embarrassed, and more open to a sexual experience." In Esperon's view, exercise "gets you in touch with the idea that you're a physical person - overweight people tend to lose contact with that" - and has an ancillary benefit, as well. "Think of the people you might meet at the gym."

Once you get yourself to a health club, what should you do besides scoping out potential partners? Cotton recommends a fully balanced exercise program, consisting of regular aerobic activity, strength training, and stretching for flexibility - at least three times a week - under the supervision of an accredited trainer.

DON'T OVERDO IT

Just don't overdo it, Leon cautions. "Heavy exercise decreases testosterone, which may have an adverse effect on sexual health," he claims. Plus, overtraining in general suppresses your immune function.

And as beneficial as exercise is, it just may not work for some E.D. sufferers, according to Bruckman. "If there's an overriding psychological disorder that's causing your sexual dysfunction, you can be Mark Spitz but you're not going to have an erection."

Men in this category may not be able to resist the lure of Viagra; others may just be too impatient to wait through six months of the slow, steady improvements they'll get from exercise. "They see advertisements and they want a quick fix," Balon says. And while he condones the drug's use for many, he adds this caveat: "Some people - like those on cardiac medication - shouldn't be taking Viagra. And if you're in poor enough physical shape, even if you can get an erection, you won't be able to keep it - Viagra or not. After all, sexual intercourse is a physical exercise."

Jim Gerard/EPN

Exercise and Sex Begins

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