For the past several years I have attended TedMed, the mind-blowing medical technology conference featuring the leading thinkers and doers in the field. This year it was held in Washington, DC, as issues of health care policy hit high on the agenda.
I attended a fascinating talk about heart health by Dr. Marc Gillinov, the genius heart surgeon from the Cleveland Clinic and author of Heart 411, a great book that goes through all of the basics and more– it is really a must-read for anyone who wants to stay healthy.
I wanted to report back some interesting health issues relating to sexual activity and your heart.
In the 1970s, former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller died during sex—every guy’s fantasy of the ultimate happy ending. But how often does this really happen? Should dying of a heart attack in the throes of wild sex be a real concern? Is sex a strenuous physical workout that stresses the heart? Does it actually even burn calories? Can you count it as part of your daily workout?
On average, sex lasts for between five and fifteen minutes and consumes about as much energy as climbing two flights of stairs. The younger and more vigorous among us may double or even triple this figure, reaching the threshold of vigorous exercise.
Sex does raise your heart rate as high as 120 to 130 beats per minute, but even at climax rarely exceeds 170. While these numbers exceed resting levels, they are not even close to the maximum values attained during heavy exertion from activities like surfing, swimming, or running. In other words, although sex gets your heart beating faster, it doesn’t count as a full workout.
According to Gillinov, “A person is three times more likely to have a heart attack brought on by anger than one triggered by sex.” He mentioned that a 1996 study in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” calculated that in healthy individuals without a history of heart disease, the chance of sexual activity causing a heart attack is about two in a million. In a person with a history of prior heart attack, the risk of experiencing another heart attack as a consequence of sex is still extremely low—about twenty in a million. This risk is even lower among heart patients who exercise regularly.
Sex is generally safe for those with coronary heart disease (blockages in the heart’s arteries), carrying an extremely low risk of triggering a heart attack. But men with coronary heart disease do need to follow the rules. Gillinov cited a German study that found that when heart attacks do occur during or after sex, they almost always involve older men engaged in extramarital affairs with younger women. It seems the increased excitement associated with unfamiliar partners and different settings may cause greater increases in heart rate and blood pressure, magnifying the cardiovascular risk. For these men, it would have been safer to stay at home, remain faithful to their wives, and burn off excess energy on a treadmill in the basement.
While many fear that sexual activity could hurt their hearts, recent evidence suggests just the opposite. The Massachusetts Male Aging Study found that men who had sex at least twice per week were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease compared with those who had sex once a month or less. While this observation does not necessarily mean that sexual activity prevents heart disease, it suggests that sex can be part of a heart-healthy lifestyle.
The bottom line— if you have questions or concerns about whether sex might hurt your heart, ask your doctor. Otherwise, go for it – it’s good for you.
Dr. Elizabeth Chabner-Thompson, a graduate of Johns Hopkins medical school, is a radiation oncologist and the founder of www.bfflco.com, a line of products designed to help cancer patients.