- While complications such as STDs and relationship difficulties can arise, sex does have health benefits.
- Sex may boost immunity, cut prostate cancer risk, improve heart health, and strengthen the pelvic floor.
- Two studies have found a link between sexual activity and performance on memory tasks in older adults.
You might associate pleasure with things that are bad for you, like too much sugar, cigarettes, or illegal drugs.
But sex isn't on that list. Yes, you can catch viruses or sexually transmitted diseases or fall into relationships that mess with your heart and health. However, sex shakes out on the positive side. For example, in a study of nearly 7,000 older Americans (the average age was 65), those who had had any kind of sexual activity in the last year were happier with their lives—particularly men who had intercourse more than twice a month.
There are some caveats: Sex research tends to rely on people's reports of how much sex they had, which may not be accurate. We also don't know whether happier, healthier people are having more sex, rather than sex giving them the lift.
That said, here is a rundown of the ways sex is thought to be good for you:
Exercise. You’re getting some exercise. Sex boosts your heart rate, burns calories, and gives muscles a workout, one study found. The level of the exercise was characterized as “moderate,” something like walking briskly, but sex varies in intensity, so only you know how much exercise you got.
Boosts immunity. Other research links the frequency of sex to a natural chemical called immunoglobulin A, which helps protect both your GI tract and respiratory system from bad bugs.
Lifts mood. Sex may also relieve depression and stress. For example, women in one study who had sex without condoms showed fewer symptoms of depression, presumably benefiting from semen. But you know whether sex is giving you a healthy afterglow. If sex doesn't boost your mood, that's a good reason to reconsider your relationship or other issues around sex.
Aids sleep. Both men and women self-report better sleep after an orgasm, whether they achieved that with a partner or through masturbation, according to one large study. The release of oxytocin and prolactin in orgasm for women is slightly sedating.
Delays menopause. A large study of pre- and peri-menopausal women found that women who had less sex had menopause earlier. Those who had weekly sex were 28 percent less likely to enter menopause than women who had sex less than once a month. It’s possible that sex signals a possibility of pregnancy to your body.
Strengthens the pelvic floor. The contractions of an orgasm strengthen the muscles that control urination in women.
Improves heart health. There’s evidence that sexual intercourse lowers systolic blood pressure.
Cuts prostate cancer risk. One review concluded that men who had sexual intercourse more often had a lower risk of prostate cancer, possibly because of more frequent ejaculations.
Boosts memory. It's possible that having frequent sex protects your memory as you age. At least two large studies have found a link between sexual activity and performance on memory tasks in older adults.
Do you need to be in love?
That depends on you.
Some people assume that you need to be in love—or in a happy monogamous and stable relationship—to reap these benefits. But let them speak for themselves. Your expectations count. One study concluded that—surprise!—casual sex, aka "hookups,” gives people a lift if they’re people who like casual sex. Maybe you think that casual sex is good for men but always a downer for women. This study found no differences between men and women.
Again, you know whether the sex you're having is giving you a boost. There's no reason to have sex that leaves you feeling unsatisfied or bereft. However, if you think of sex as "bad for you," but pleasurable, maybe it's time to rethink.
A version of this post also appears on Your Care Everywhere.