Can sex improve your health? Yes. Yes! YES!

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published October 16, 2019

Key Takeaways

Sex binds humanity; people from all walks of life do it. Recently, researchers have taken a bigger interest in the benefits of sex in terms of quality of life and health. More research on the subject is emerging.

Although research is limited because of the personal nature of the subject, the health implications of sex have been studied in the past. In now-classic research, William H. Masters, MD, and Virginia E. Johnson looked at physiological responses to sex in a laboratory setting in 1966. They found that during sex, respiratory rates increased up to 40 respirations per minute, systolic blood pressure levels rose from 30 mmHg to 80 mmHg, and heart rate increased to 110-180 beats per minute.

Let’s take a look at five health benefits of sex, according to scientific research.

Energy expenditure

Calories burned during sex has been a topic of debate for quite some time. Although not a lot by marathon standards, it seems that having sex does burn off some energy.

In a low-powered study published in PLoS One, young couples (mean age: 22.6 years) were monitored for energy expenditure during sex via wearable technology (armband). In total, participants burned about 85 kCal at moderate intensity. Specifically, men burned an average of 101 kCal total or 4.2 kCal/min, while women burned about 69 kCal total or 3.1 kcal/min.

In the study, participants also performed 30-minute endurance tests on a treadmill at moderate intensity. In men, average energy expenditure was 276 kCal on the treadmill, and in women, 213 kCal. Curiously, a few male participants managed to burn more calories while having sex vs using the treadmill, which begs the question of what exactly it is they do in the bedroom.

“These results suggest that sexual activity may potentially be considered, at times, as a significant exercise,” the authors concluded.

Increased immunity

Researchers of one study showed that in 112 college students stratified by sex frequency with a partner—none, infrequent (less than once a week), frequent (one to two times per week), and very frequent (three or more times per week)—those who had sex “frequently” had higher levels of salivary immunoglobulin A (SIgA) independent of sexual satisfaction or length of relationships. In other words, having more sex could do the trick in terms of boosting SIgA—an antibody that has been shown to play a pivotal role in protecting vulnerable areas (eg, oral cavity, lungs, and gut) from invading pathogens.

Then again, other investigators have demonstrated mixed results regarding the effects of sex on immune status. For instance, according to the results from one dyad of studies that included both community and undergraduate cohorts, higher levels of partnered sex was linked to lower immunity in women with depressive symptoms in contrast to men with depressive symptoms, who actually demonstrated higher immunity.

Importantly, these studies employed SIgA as a proxy for immunity. Obviously, immunity is much more complex than one biomarker and depends on other elements of the immune system, including inflammation and white blood cell counts.

Reduced risk of prostate cancer

Some researchers have shown a link between increased total ejaculations—sexual intercourse, nocturnal emissions, and masturbation combined—and decreased rates of prostate cancer. In the high-powered Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, men who ejaculated ≥ 21 times a month had a 31% lower risk of prostate cancer vs those who ejaculated 4-7 times a month.

Reduced depressive symptoms

Some experts have suggested an association between increased amounts of sex and decreased levels of depression. In fact, Stuart Brody, PhD, stirred up controversy in sexology circles when he wrote the following in a review:

“It is likely that only unfettered, real [penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI)] has important mood-enhancing benefits. A study of young women in the United States found that not only did Beck Depression Inventory scores worsen with increasing time since last PVI (ie, lower [frequency of PVI] is associated with more depression), but the use of condoms obliterated the apparent antidepressant effects of PVI.”

Obviously, lots of pleasurable and healthy sexual activities do not involve “unfettered, real” PVI, ergo the controversy.

However, there’s no controversy that sexual activity releases endorphins, neurochemicals, and hormones—like dopamine, oxytocin, and prolactin—that elevate mood and feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.


“Yes, sex can actually make it easier to fall asleep,” according to the National Sleep Foundation. “This is mostly because of the hormones that are released during the act. Sex boosts oxytocin (a hormone that makes you feel connected to your partner) and lowers cortisol (a stress-related hormone). Plus, having an orgasm releases a hormone called prolactin, which makes you feel relaxed and sleepy. All of that leads up to a nice, drowsy state that’s perfect for cuddling up and falling asleep.”

Bottom Line

On balance, sex may very well have some health benefits. At least it makes sense that sex could boost quality of life. However, research has been done on this very personal subject is limited, and studies are ripe for bias. So many other factors obfuscate any causal associations. Furthermore, studies are also often done in small populations of college students, so infer what you will.

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