Matters of the heart
As if there were not already enough reasons to engage in silent sports, we can now add to the list making our sex life safer.
That's right. Recent research has found people who work out and stay in shape are less likely to have heart attacks during sex. Couch potatoes, on the other hand, are at greater risk.
The study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, was conducted by Issa J. Dahabreh, MD, of Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Jessica K. Paulus, ScD, of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. They looked at the relationship between physical and sexual activity and heart attacks by examining 14 previous studies in detail.
Heart problems are a major cause of illness and death in the United States. It's estimated there are as many as a million heart attacks and 300,000 cardiac arrests each year.
"Regular physical activity has been identified as strongly associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and related mortality. Despite the well-established benefits of regular physical activity, anecdotal evidence has suggested that physical activity, as well as other acute exposures, such as sexual activity and psychological stress, can act as triggers of acute cardiac events," the authors wrote.
Put another way, if you don't regularly exercise, you have an increased risk of a heart attack if you suddenly decide to run a race. Or if you suddenly get turned on. Conversely, if you are a silent sporter who stays in shape, the risk both on the roads and in bed drops markedly.
"We found a significant association between episodic physical and sexual activity and MI (heart attack) and suggestive evidence of an association between episodic physical activity and SCD (sudden cardiac death)," the researchers said. "Most importantly, these associations appear to be strongly modified by habitual physical activity, with individuals with higher habitual activity levels experiencing much smaller increases in risk compared with individuals with low activity levels."
The message: Get off the couch and get active or risk death outside or in the bedroom.
I have a friend, retired from the Madison Police Department, who was asked to talk about physical fitness to other officers because he was a runner and triathlete. He would stress the need to get your heart rate up during exercise. Invariably, one of the cops would say, "I did. I had sex last night." My friend would then have to explain that a single sexual episode was not the same as regular aerobic training.
Researchers have looked at sex and the heart. In a 2001 paper published in European Heart Journal, a team of researchers from the cardiology department of Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia noted, "The cardiovascular response to sexual intercourse is similar to mild-to-moderate effort encountered in daily activities." Both blood pressure and heart rate rise.
"The risk to ischaemia (heart disease) during sexual intercourse with a familiar partner, in familiar settings, is quite low, if the patient can perform equal to or more than 5-6 METs on an exercise stress test," they said. "Coital death is rare."
METs is short for "metabolic equivalents," a measure of how hard your body is working and demanding oxygen. At complete rest, a person's MET level is about one. Five METs is roughly equivalent to walking at a brisk pace (a mile every 15 minutes). Silent sporters regularly exceed those levels. Just running six miles per hour (10-minute miles) is a 10 METs experience.
The Albert Einstein Medical Center researchers noted METs have been measured during sexual intercourse by placing monitors on couples. A 1984 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found "metabolic expenditures during stimulation and orgasm were about 3.3 METs."
While the studies are fascinating, one of the Tufts researchers, Jessica Paulus, said the risks involved are relatively low.
"If you take 1,000 people, each individual session of physical or sexual activity per week can be associated with an increase of 1 to 2 cases of heart attack or sudden cardiac death per year," she said. And she said it was important to balance the findings with other studies showing regular physical activity reduces the risk of heart attacks and sudden cardiac death by 30 percent.
That's good news for silent sports enthusiasts. We're never going to have to ask a doctor, as an actor in TV commercial for a popular drug manufacturer does, "Am I healthy enough to have sexual intercourse?"
Bill Hauda is a bicyclist, veteran of some 50 marathons, including 13 in Boston; a former competitive triathlete; founder and first president of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin; currently a BFW board member; and former director of Wisconsin's two major cross-state bicycle tours, GRABAAWR and SAGBRAW.