“When we go to the definition of exercise, at its very basic level, it is moving,” says doctor of physical therapy Valerie L. Bobb, PT, DPT, who works with the University of Washington School of Medicine. Paired with Merriam-Webster's first definition of exercise, which reads as "a physical activity that is done to become stronger and healthier," it seems that the equation for effective exercise involves movement plus intention to gain strength and improve health.
“When we go to the definition of exercise, at its very basic level, it is moving.” —Valerie L. Bobb, DPT
So, perhaps the distinction of whether sex counts as exercise or not relies on your personal headspace, and how that translates to your physical movement, as you engage in it. If during your sex session, you are exerting yourself in positions that require physical strength and movement that could boost your hear rate, that may indeed constitute exercise.
- Anna Balabanova Shannahan, MD, ABOIM, FAWM, Anna Balabanova Shannahan, MD, ABOIM, FAWM, is a family medicine doctor, exercise expert, and assistant professor of family medicine at Northwestern University.
- Nan Wise, PhD, licensed psychotherapist, cognitive neuroscientist, and certified sex therapist
- Valerie L. Bobb, PT, DPT, Valerie L. Bobb, PT, DPT, is a doctor of physical therapy at the Exercise Training Center at University of Washington Medical Center in Roosevelt.
Regardless of how intense or effective the exercise ultimately is, though, it's better than nothing. “Any movement is better than no movement,” says Dr. Bobb. And the World Health Organization's guidelines on physical activity, which recommend reducing sedentary behavior in general, back her up. So whether you’re having sex at a light-intensity exercise threshold (like leisurely walking), or moderate intensity (like briskly walking, vacuuming, or raking leaves), or vigorous intensity (like running or taking an aerobics class), you are, in fact, exercising. That's because, again, exercise is, by definition, getting movement when you'd otherwise be sedentary.
But while sex counts as exercise based on the technical definition of what exercise means, that doesn't mean you'd be wise to swap your regular workout routine with a romp in the sheets.
Can you use sex to replace exercise?
Considering that the American Heart Association recommends clocking 150 weekly minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, it's unlikely you'll be able to satisfy that requirement with sex alone (but if you can, hey, more power to you.) In addition to that being a whole bunch of sex, that unlikelihood is due in large part to sex counting as a light-intensity workout, says family medicine doctor and exercise expert Anna Balabanova Shannahan, MD.
What differentiates light-intensity workout from that of a moderate-intensity one has to do with a metric called metabolic equivalent task (MET), which functions as an indicator of how much energy a person exerts while performing a given activity. According to Dr. Shannahan, METs are the standard unit for gauging a workout's intensity for a person because they take into consideration weight, age, and fitness level. (So, for example, calorie-burn isn't used to measure intensity, because two people can do the same exact workout and burn a different amount of calories, due to their specific genetic makeups, Dr. Shannahan adds.)
METs are the standard unit for gauging a workout’s intensity because it takes into consideration weight, age, and fitness level.
For reference, one MET is the amount of energy you would use sitting still, about one and a half to three METs constitute light intensity, moderate intensity is reached when you use between three and six METs, and vigorous intensity requires expending more than six METs. Exercising at X METs means that a person is expending X times the amount of energy than they would at rest (three METs is three times the energy, 10 METs is 10 times the energy, and so on).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get between 500 and 1,000 weekly MET minutes, which are calculated by multiplying:
- The number of days someone did a certain activity
- The amount of METs they exerted during said activity
- How long they sustained the activity
Ready for some math? Let’s say you walked two days a week at five METs and each walk was 30 minutes; you'd be at 300 MET minutes for those two days.
But, where does that leave sex? Allow Dr. Shannahan to explain: "Sexual activity usually measures at about two to three METs," she says. This holds true for non-penetrative sex acts as well, which can also gradually increase your heart rate. So, even if sex “tends to mostly fall in the range of mild to moderate exercise,” Dr. Shannahan adds, it does contribute to your MET output and, thus, qualify as exercise (especially if you're gaining strength and boosting markers of health in the process. For a few tips to ensure your sex sessions “count” as meaningful exercise, though, keep reading.
3 tips to help ensure your sex does, in fact, “count” as exercise
1. Have sex standing up, if you can
According to certified sex therapist and neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD, author of Why Good Sex Matters, standing-up partnered sex can tick the exercise box because the person who’s holding up the other person can get a good arm workout.
If, on the other hand, you’re the person who’s being held up, Dr. Wise says you still stand to benefit from having sex standing up. She recommends practicing isometric exercises (like pulling yourself up on something) to ensure you’re also getting a good arm workout.
2. Try something new
While routines often become, well, routine because they work, when it comes to exercise, muscles crave newness. Changing your routine, then, is likely to engage different muscle groups, which might make you “feel it” in more ways than one. Dr. Shannahan recommends trying a bridge, an arch, or a downward dog position, because they “can provide a little bit of that strength component, but also are more likely to get the heart rate up a little bit more.”
Also, observation is key here, Dr. Wise says, because you have to be mindful of what your typical sex encounters are like so you can make changes if necessary. “If one person is usually being active, sort of flip over and let the other person drive the bus for a while,” says Dr. Wise.
3. Make your sex sessions longer
Again, adults are supposed to be clocking 500 to 1,000 weekly MET minutes, and because those take into account how long you do something, having sex for longer periods can increase your output. Of course, sex includes much more than just penetrative intercourse—which is why foreplay and other non-penetrative sex acts also factor into that time.
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