Huffing and puffing. Sweating profusely. Burning abdominal muscles and sore arms. Feel-good endorphins pulsing through your brain. All of these bodily responses can be used to describe a challenging workout — and, believe it or not, a rousing hookup. It's easy to compare the sensations of sex to those of a good workout, and it turns out they may have similar positive effects on your health.
"Sex certainly counts as a form of exercise, and sometimes even reaches the level of moderate exercise," says Tina M. Penhollow, PhD, MCHES, associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Health Promotion at Florida Atlantic University. But this entirely depends on the consistency and vigorousness of your usual sexual activities, she says. For example, slow or gentle sex is going to elicit a very different bodily response than, say, standing sex. And when it comes to improving your cardiovascular health and endurance, there's a big difference between having sex once a month versus a quickie once a day.
Some studies have actually examined how people's heart rates respond during one sex session. Typically, a person's heart rate peaks at the beginning of an orgasm, and returns to baseline 10 to 20 minutes afterwards. A small study suggests that during masturbation, women's heart rates increase 57% from the baseline when they orgasm — and you can assume that partnered sex would involve even more activity. That said, a 2007 study on heterosexual men and women found that people's heart rates and blood pressure were significantly lower during sex than during treadmill workouts, suggesting that sex has a "modest physical stress" on the body.
So, while sex does count as some activity, it's not exactly up to par with a typical workout, at least from a physiological standpoint. But it's worth noting that there's more to a "good workout" than just increased heart rate. Sometimes a workout helps you develop a new skill, or builds muscles that make your daily activities easier. Exercise also improves your mood, and can help you manage stress and anxiety. While those metrics aren't measurable like heart rate, they're still super important.
The bottom line: "Even the best sex life can not replace the importance of other physical exercise in one’s life," Dr. Pennhollow says. So, whether your usual sex routine involves back-breaking positions, or less pelvic thrusting than a Pilates class, you should still try to prioritize some exercise outside of the bedroom.