When a man is unable to keep his erection firm enough for sex consistently, the associated medical condition is known as erectile dysfunction (ED). According to the Mayo Clinic, a number of factors play a role in ED. An important one is exercise (or, as it turns out, lack thereof).
The Urology Care Foundation notes that several factors can play a role in causing ED, and finding the exact cause can get a bit complicated as it can involve both emotional and psychological issues as well as physical health problems. Behaviors and conditions that populate the foundation's list of potential contributing factors include smoking, alcohol and drug use, obesity, heart disease and high blood sugar, blood pressure or cholesterol — plus, you guessed it, lack of exercise.
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Exercise and ED: A Closer Look
Some men may be concerned that ED can be the result of working out, but, in fact, the opposite is true when it comes to the link between exercise and ED, according to research published in November 2016 in American Family Physician. Having a sedentary lifestyle is actually one of several factors commonly associated with ED, and regular exercise is an important component in the treatment of ED, the authors point out.
Of course, exercise is good for preventing or improving a large number of medical conditions, but when it comes to ED, exercise offers some very specific benefits. "Exercise is protective against erectile dysfunction as it helps to decrease the deposition of harmful plaques in the arteries of the penis," says Eric Tygenhof, MD, a urologist and medical director of urologic surgery at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California.
"These plaques decrease the overall flow of blood into the penis and degrade the quality of the erection," he says. "There is evidence as well that regular exercise can increase testosterone levels, which may also boost erectile function and sex drive."
When it comes to what exercises you should do to prevent ED, Dr. Tygenhof says that almost all exercise can provide some benefit, but some types have a slight edge. "Aerobic exercises such as running and swimming seem to have the greatest protective effect," he says. "There isn't a clearly defined optimal exercise regimen, but certainly a mix of cardio and weight training is prudent."
Mayo Clinic adds that, while less strenuous regular exercise can help, the most benefit comes from more intense activity, such as moderate to vigorous aerobic exercises. Of course, this might not be possible for all men, especially those with underlying health problems like heart disease or other significant medical conditions. That's why it's best to discuss an exercise plan with your doctor, particularly if you have other health concerns.
Dr. Tygenhof notes that exercise is far from the only lifestyle change you can make that can have an impact on ED. As he says, if it's good for the heart, then it's probably good for managing ED, as well. "The same problem that creates heart attacks creates erectile dysfunction in about 90 percent of cases," he says. "Any behaviors, such as exercise, that are heart-healthy will also be penis-healthy."
In essence, the basic lifestyle tenets that you hear about time and again are key: weight management, a healthy diet, good sleep, low stress and regular exercise. "Obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, sedentary lifestyle and vascular disease are all major risk factors for ED," Dr. Tygenhof says. "Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help to prevent those diseases."
"There is mounting evidence, as well, that a plant-based diet can help to protect against erectile dysfunction and, in some cases, help to reverse existing ED," he adds.
Read more: The Top 9 Foods for Men's Sexual Health
- Mayo Clinic: “Erectile Dysfunction: Symptoms & Causes”
- Mayo Clinic: “Erectile Dysfunction: Diagnosis & Treatment”
- Urology Care Foundation: “What Is Erectile Dysfunction?”
- American Family Physician: “Erectile Dysfunction”
- Eric Tygenhof, MD, urologist, medical director of urologic surgery, St. Jude Medical Center, Fullerton, California
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.