Sex or Cardio? A Definitive Guide to Which Is Better for You

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Sex as exercise? It might seem too good to be true (and maybe something your partner just made up), but research has found that it actually burns a comparable number of calories as a moderate-intensity workout like a session on the elliptical.

And that’s not all. Here’s how sex stacks up to all the benefits you get from your regular aerobic exercises, according to health pros.

sex and cardio health benefits
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You'll burn more calories doing cardio than you will having sex

During an average romp, women tend to burn about 60 to 75 calories (while men can burn up to twice that, a study from the University of Quebec found). That’s roughly the same as the number you’d torch during about 10 minutes of steady-state cardio, says Joel Seedman, PhD, an athletic performance specialist who frequently advises athletes on how sex before competition can affect their physical and mental states. According to researchers in the Canadian study, sex tends to be a less intense workout than jogging (burning 3.1 calories per minute versus 7.1) but a better burn than walking.

Cardio can also be better than sex for calorie burn because of EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. A HIIT session, for instance, can leave you torching calories post-workout, increasing your overall burn by up to 15 percent, according to the American College of Sports Medicine—while the calorie burn from sex is pretty much done once your head hits the pillow.

sex and cardio health benefits
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Sex helps balance hormones and boost your mood

But sex isn't just good for burning calories. “[It] affects hormones and endocrine function,” explains Seedman. “Cardio can help people destress, yes, but sex can do the same thing. It can decrease cortisol [levels and] increase endorphins and dopamine.” High-intensity cardio and intervals are tops for weight loss, but too much of these workouts can pump up your levels of stress hormone.

One thing we get from sex but not cardio is the release of oxytocin, the love hormone, which has been shown to be an important hormone for health and wellness,” says Seedman.

In other words, while the runner’s high might be real, it doesn’t hold a candle to the euphoria that sex can leave you feeling.

sex and cardio health benefits
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Both sex and cardio can improve your heart health

A session between the sheets might also benefit your heart as much as low- to medium-intensity cardio. “The average heart rate during sex is 110 to 130, which is the equivalent of going for a walk, jog, or bike ride,” says Seedman. It also promotes healthy blood pressure to a similar extent and can slash your risk of heart disease by 40 to 50 percent. But keep in mind that you might need to put in a little extra effort:

"The reality is that for most people, when they're having sex with their usual partner in the usual place, there's barely a bump in their heart rate—it doesn't take much energy," says Lauren Streicher, MD, an associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Planning a special night or steamy weekend getaway could help rev up your ticker.

If your runs tend to be sprints and you veer toward higher-intensity cardio, yes, that will be a better cardiovascular workout than sex, says Seedman. But repeated tough workouts are actually hard on your heart. “Intense cardio is stressful on the heart and the rest of your body—so you really need to do it sparingly,” he says.

sex and cardio health benefits
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Cardio can help you sleep better

It’s tough to say which is better at promoting quality zzz's. Studies have found cardio can help people with sleeping issues doze off more quickly and sleep longer. Low- to moderate-intensity workouts seem to be the sweet spot, according to the National Sleep Foundation—higher intensity workouts like running didn’t have the same effect.

Similarly, in addition to increasing oxytocin and decreasing cortisol, sex also improves your sleep by releasing a hormone called prolactin during orgasm, which can lead to deeper sleep and more time in the REM stage.

sex and cardio health benefits
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So, is sex or cardio better for your health overall?

Both cardio and sex are beneficial for overall wellbeing. “Ideally, you should have regular sex and do both low and high-intensity cardio, as they’re all going to be beneficial for your heart and the rest of your body and mind,” says Seedman.

But it'll come as no big shocker to hear which one wins the popular vote: People generally find sex to be more fun than a typical cardio session on the treadmill, according to the University of Quebec research. “Sex was more enjoyable than jogging and because of this, I would say that people will be more motivated to practice it than another exercise,” says study author Antony Karelis, PhD.

Find out how meditation affects your sex life, plus the surprising reason you should stop comparing it to everyone else's.

This story was originally published on February 26, 2018; it was updated on September 17, 2018. 

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