Exercising for a better sex life? Here's why it's tricky

Philly sexologist and fitness trainer Timaree Schmit explores the tangled calculus of body talk.

By Timaree Schmit
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 15, 2014

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Sexologist and fitness trainer Timaree Schmit works out at Weston Fitness in Center City. (Photograph by J.R. Blackwell)

Imagine the heaviest thing you’ve ever lifted from the ground. Here’s what kind of personal trainer Shawn is: He’ll tell you to do that 12 times in a row, then race up a set of stairs, then come back down and do it again. His demands would seem unreasonable—the orders of a sadist, even—if it weren’t for the fact that when you look at his carved, muscular body, you just know he’s put himself through the same sort of brutal regimen. And it’s true: The 40-year-old Center City resident didn’t start out with this sort of rock-solid physique. In fact, in his early 20s, Shawn was morbidly obese; it took a heart attack to catapult him into a life of nutrition and fitness, where he’s resided ever since.

Shawn knows his body well. For instance: He remembers the most amazing sexual experience of his life with total clarity. “Something incredible happened,” he says. “It started when we came at the same time . . . we were looking directly into each others’ eyes.  It probably lasted two seconds, but if you told me it was ten years, I would have believed it. Worlds opened up—for both of us. We were completely immersed in this moment of pleasure and connected to the whole universe at the same time. It was deeply spiritual . . . and the closest I have ever felt to another human being.”

He can picture it in his mind’s eye as if it happened yesterday. But it didn’t. In fact, that mind-blowing experience of sexual rapture didn’t happen to the Shawn who’s a hard-bodied health machine at all. It happened to the Shawn who weighed well over 350 pounds.

Surprising? Sure—because that’s not what our culture trains us to expect about our bodies. An onslaught of media messages, both intentional and otherwise, tells us our sexual enjoyment of life hinges upon our physical fitness and, specifically, our weight control—that losing pounds will gain us more and better sexual partners, more and better sex.

And often that’s true. But not all the time, and it’s not that simple. Yeah, reshaping your body through new exercise and eating habits will probably change your sex life. How it’ll change it—well, that’s not so easy to predict.

The intersection of sexuality and physical fitness is as complex as it is dynamic, involving everything from chemical reactions between individuals to emotional satisfaction in a relationship—and from the functioning of erectile tissues to the comfort a person has in their ability to ask their partner for what they want. Sexuality encompasses nearly every facet of the human experience, and so a happy sexuality doesn’t just mean having a well-functioning biological machine, any more than it means a simple frequency count of those aching, throbbing desires between the legs. Just like physical fitness itself, sexual health manifests in different ways for different people—even if infomercials have done their damnedest to convince us all that both are measured the same way on the same scale.

Erika, a 32-year-old from Bridesburg, offers a traditional sort of fitness success story. She started exercising after being diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome and prediabetes; in the span of two and a half years, she lost 70 pounds—and found something else. “I had always been quick to push what I wanted and needed to the side,” she says, “in order to get the attention of anyone who would take notice.” Then she began running and working out, and not only did her excess weight begin to come off, she began to actually enjoy the exercise itself. As she did, she found herself less likely to ignore her own everyday feelings. “I found my voice,” she says, “and could tell people yes and no and not feel bad anymore.”

That increased sense of confidence might be as important to the relationship between physical and sexual health as the increased physical fitness itself is.

On the one hand, research has shown that nutritious eating and regular exercise are associated with a number of positive sexual outcomes, including improvements in desire, stamina and general mood. Increased strength and flexibility may enable a wider variety of sexual positions, including those that allow for deeper penetration, more mutual stimulation and better access to the clitoris—as well as the excitement of being able to view a partner’s body from a novel angle. After Nikki, a 38-year-old Mt. Airy resident, undertook new exercise habits post-partum to shed her excess pregnancy weight, she found that she felt better than she had even at her original size in the first place. “I’m much stronger and more toned,” she says, “and I like myself naked much better. I’m also more flexible, which allows for different positioning—I’m able to open my legs wider and get them up on his shoulders, which I hadn’t previously been able to do.”

But then there’s the kind of mind-body connectedness that’s cultivated in a good yoga, Pilates or dance class. There, the outcome has less to do with improving one’s muscles or cardiovascular powers and more with encouraging attention to sensation—cultivating a conscious movement away from discomfort and toward pleasure. That’s a skill set that’s rarely encouraged in young women although—or, perhaps, because—it’s highly associated with sexual satisfaction.

Fat-acceptance activists would be quick (and right) to point out that at least some of the newfound pride and confidence people feel after losing weight is because of the social pressure we feel to hate fat, unrelated to its connection to measurements of health. That is, thanks to the incredibly narrow standards for beauty that are promoted in advertising—all the more so here in the Photoshop era—we’ve been conditioned to aspire to the absence of flaws rather than the presence of either attractive features or well-rounded health.

This conditioning has consequences for dating and mating when we set about changing our level of physical fitness.

Long-term satisfaction in a relationship, research suggests, is highest when members of a couple maintain comparable value to other potential partners. While they don’t have to be attractive in the same way—one might be wealthy, for instance, while the other enjoys good looks and a lot of social capital—large disparities in perceived “value” can result in resentment and general dissatisfaction. Monogamy is often harder to sustain under those circumstances; a “more attractive” mate may feel entitled to cheat, even as a “less attractive” one may step out to drum up some self-esteem.

One partner gaining or losing value is challenging for a relationship; even when the change is positive, many couples find the shift enormously stressful. Take, for example, the fact that eight of the last 14 women named Best Actress at the Academy Awards experienced divorce or breakup shortly after their win. The same can happen when one partner starts getting into more conventionally attractive shape: The less fit partner may worry that they, too, will have to make changes to retain their value or risk losing the relationship. Their fears may have validity, too, since many people who lose a lot of weight report that they start pursuing different kinds of partners—aiming for fitter mates than they previously would have been comfortable around.

Every few months, a non-scientific survey shows up listing things women say they’d rather do than have sex—and they almost always mention chocolate, the Internet and working out. That’s because to your brain, all four are pretty interchangeable: They’re actions that involve a release of endorphins, like dopamine and serotonin, that make us feel good inside and want to repeat whatever action preceded the feeling.

In other words: While Shawn the trainer’s otherworldly orgasm might have been a peek into the unending cosmos, it was also a massive dose of brain chemicals. Years later, he’s in much better physical shape for good sex—but that doesn’t mean it’ll have the same effect on his inner experience. “Now that I’m fit,” he muses, “I can do a lot more—hold her in a crazy position, go at it for longer, that kind of thing. Being strong makes sex a lot easier, and we can have more fun. But I’ve never been able to recreate that moment to this day.”

So—taking more active control of your body’s well-being? Awesome. Doing it to improve your sex life? Start not with an assumption, but with the same question that any good physical trainer would ask you first: What is it specifically that you’re looking to achieve? It’s easy to answer with what the world at large would say—but finding your own answer within is ultimately going to be what matters. 

Timaree Schmit, Ph.D., host of the podcast Sex With Timaree, teaches human sexuality coursework at Widener University and CCP and teaches Pilates, kickboxing, dance, spinning and more at several local venues, including Philly Dance Fitness, Weston Fitness, Sweat, City Fitness and Jefferson Hospital. On Sun., Jan. 19, she’ll lead a workshop on “Fitness, Body Love and Sexercise” at the Sexplatorium: 7pm. $20. 317 South St. sexploratorium.net. Follow her online at sexwithtimaree.com.

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