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How often *should* you have sex with your partner? How often do you *actually* have sex with your partner? Thanks to some nosy scientists who explore Americans’ bedroom habits for the sake of research, we have some data. A 2017 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that the average adult has sex about 54 times a year, or about once a week. Other research has found that amount of sex—weekly—among committe
If you’re having sex less than that, that’s likely perfectly OK—as long as you and your partner are on the same page about how often you’d like to get busy. But more and more research shows that having regular sex benefits your body in surprising ways—and you might want to figure out what’s keeping you from having sex more often; not just for your relationship, but for your overall health too.
For real: Check out these 12 science-y reasons hooking up can be healthy. So, have at it. Doctor’s orders!
“If sex is vigorous enough, it can qualify as mild to moderate exercise,” says Yves-Richard Dole, MD, an ob-gyn at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. But even a hot-and-heavy romp isn’t a great substitute for your favorite HIIT class at the gym. The main issue: length (of time).
Most of the time, “sex is not vigorous for long enough to qualify as significant exercise,” says Dr. Dole. In one 2013 study, University of Montreal researchers had couples wear fitness trackers while they got busy. They found that men burned about 100 calories on average during a sex session that lasted about 25 minutes. Women burned, um, 69 calories. However other research—including a classic study published in the New England Journal of Medicine—found that a typical sex duration is much shorter, only about six minutes. That said, even if sex isn’t the same as a heart-thumping cardio workout, it’s better for your body than if you were to spend the equivalent time in bed scrolling Instagram or watching reruns on HGTV.
The phrase “use it or lose it” applies quite well to sexual health. Regular sex can improve vaginal health by activating core musculature and contracting pelvic floor muscles, says Dr. Dole. (Pelvic floor muscles are the the pelvic organs—bladder, bowel, and uterus in women—and the bottom of the pelvis.) “These muscles help maintain correct bladder position above the vagina,” he says. “The increased tone can prevent incontinence. Through sex and regular Kegel exercises, pelvic organ prolapse—descending or drooping of organs—can be prevented.”
Having sex regularly can help the vagina from shrinking as a woman ages, adds Melissa Hague, MD, an ob-gyn based in Wichita, Kansas. That’s because feeling aroused keeps the mucus glands in the vagina active, which can help prevent dryness that occurs with age and perimenopause.
“Sexual activity reduces blood pressure in women,” says Kamala Tamirisa, MD, a cardiologist at ProMedica Physicians Cardiology in Toledo, Ohio. For one, you can thank the cascade of heart-healthy hormones released after you climax: Prolactin increases relaxation and sleep, which in turn helps overall emotional health and lowers blood pressure; the hormone oxytocin also helps reduce systemic blood pressure.
The thing with stress and sex is that it’s a bit of a chicken-egg game. When you feel stressed, a chemical reaction in your body works to suppress your sex drive, according to Venus Nicolino, PhD, a Los Angeles-based relationship expert (who goes by the moniker Dr. V). But the very act of having sex also releases stress-soothing hormones like oxytocin that promote relaxation and help counteract the effects of stress-promoting hormones like cortisol.
In other words, if you think you’re too stressed to have sex, doing the deed may be the very thing that could help bust the stress funk you’re facing. “I’m not saying you should push yourself into having sex no matter how you feel,” says Dr. V. But you could attempt to carve out time for sex—say, Saturday mornings or Thursday nights—so you have something to look forward to regardless of how stressed-out you might feel.
A recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior asked young women to do different kinds of memory tests; researchers found that those who engaged in more frequent sexual intercourse scored better on tests of abstract words. Other research has found that people who have sex more often fare better on memory tests with number recognition and face recognition than those who don’t have sex as frequently, says Jennifer Wu, MD, an ob-gyn in New York City. The theory is that sexual activity may promote better neural connections in certain areas of the brain responsible for these aspects of memory, but more research is needed to fully understand the potential connection—and biology behind it. Any volunteers?
Sex counts as gentle exercise, it lowers stress, reduces blood pressure, and promotes emotional well-being: all the ingredients you’d want for a top-notch ticker. And science backs up the sex-heart health connection: A study in the American Journal of Cardiology of 1,165 men found that those who did the deed only once a month or less had a 45 percent increased risk of having heart disease compared with men who said they had sex two to three times a week. (The researchers accounted for issues like erectile dysfunction, which could affect men’s ability to have sex as well as their heart disease risk.) The researchers encouraged doctors to consider a patient’s sexual activity as a marker for their cardiovascular and overall health.
Since you’re less stressed, chances are you’ll sleep better after a romp in the sheets. “The main reason sex can promote sleep in women is due to the hormone oxytocin, which is released during orgasm,” says Alyse M. Kelly-Jones, MD, a Novant Health Mintview ob-gyn based in Charotte, North Carolina. “This so called “love hormone” has many effects in our body. Oxytocin and reduce the effects of cortisol, our stress hormone. Less stress and more calming feelings lead to better sleep.”
Forget apples: Could a more active sex life keep the doctor away? Maybe. For one thing, sex can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which experts know can weaken your immune system. And other research suggests that sex may boost levels of certain immune system components known for fighting off germs. A small study from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, for example, found higher concentrations of immunoglobulin A—an immune system antibody—in students who were sexually active a few times a week. And University of Pittsburgh research found that people with the most social support—from romantic relationships, as well as family and friends—were less likely to come down with a cold after being exposed to a virus compared to those who felt less connected.
Who says you need regular facials for fresh, dewy skin? Postcoital glow is a real thing. Sex helps boost your circulation, which is necessary to maintain your body’s production of collagen, a protein that keep your skin looking supple and youthful. And by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, sex may also promote hormonal changes that can improve acne.
“I have a headache” may be the oldest excuse in the book to get out of a sexual encounter, but if you have a headache, sex may be a surprisingly potent way to treat it. One study of 1,000 headache sufferers looked at whether sexual activity had an impact on those prone to migraine or cluster headaches. They found that 60 percent of migraine patients reported relief if they had sex during an episode; on the other hand, only 37 percent of cluster headache patients said that sex helped make their pain feel better. One possible explanation: Endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, are released during sexual stimulation, says Dr. Kelly-Jones. “Endorphins have a similar chemical structure to morphine, a synthetic pain killer, used for severe pain.”
What’s more, “a study of female migraine sufferers at the Headache Clinic at Southern Illinois University found that many participants had some or all the effects of the migraine alleviated by having an orgasm,” explains Los Angeles-based ob-gyn Pari Ghodsi, MD. While more traditional medications were overall more effective at treating migraines—don’t replace your headache medications with sex!—“women who did benefit from the orgasm received relief from the pain faster.”
Some couples are more squeamish than others about having sex during that time of the month, but for those who don’t mind, there’s a nice pain-relieving perk to be had. The same endorphins released during sex that could soothe migraines could also help quiet a crampy uterus, says Dr. Ghodsi. So instead of curling up on the couch in a ball with a dose of ibuprofen, you could try curling up in bed with your partner as a way to fend off period pain.
Sex can improve your feelings of attractiveness and self esteem, says ob-gyn Kecia Gaither, MD, director of perinatal services at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, a member of NYC Health + Hospitals System in Bronx, New York. “From an emotional standpoint, sex improves bonding between the two individuals involved. When oxytocin, the love hormone, is released, it increases feelings of love and closeness.”
“Human beings crave connection, and the bonding that occurs during great sex can make the craziness of our world disappear,” says Dr. Kelly-Jones. “When we have good sex, we are happy and our partners are happy. We don’t seem to care as much about the dishes in the sink and the clothes that need to be folded. We smile big. And good sex creates more good sex. It’s such a positive feedback loop.”