When you think about living a healthy life, you usually think about eating well, keeping active, and getting a full night's sleep. You may not think about having sex or masturbating regularly, but the connection between sex and health is undeniable. As more and more research proves the benefits of regular sex — whether alone or with a partner — it's worth asking ourselves how our own sex lives could be contributing to or detracting from our health.
Several studies over the past few years suggest that there are multiple health benefits to sexual activity, from memory enhancement to overall happiness, sex researcher Nicole Prause, PhD, tells Bustle. However, these studies tend to be correlational. That is, they may show that, say, those who have more sex are happier. But that don't show that having sex makes you happy. That's because it's incredibly hard to get a study approved where people actually have sex or masturbate in the lab, Prause says. However, given the fact that sex releases endorphins, it would make sense if it did make people happier, and Prause is working on research to test this theory.
As of now, though, here's what we know about the connection between sex and health — and what we think we know but actually don't have much evidence to prove.
Fact 1: People Who Are Having Good Sex Are Happier
A recent study by Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research found that those who were satisfied with their sex lives scored seven points higher on average on a 100-point "Living Well" index. This doesn't mean, however, that if your sex life has gotten stale, you'll be less healthy. Prause believes the same benefits can be seen with masturbation.
Fact 2: Women Who Have More Sex Have Better Memories
A 2016 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that women who had more sex performed better on word memory tests. The researchers think this is because sex triggers neurons in the hippocampus — the brain region involved in memory — to grow. Now, there's a case for a study break if I ever heard one.
Fact 3: Sex And Masturbation Can Improve Confidence
Women who regularly masturbated reported feeling better about their bodies in one study in Psychology of Women Quarterly. Another study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that college students felt better about themselves and their lives when they were having casual sex than when they weren't, but only if they actually liked casual sex.
Fact 4: Sex Is Linked With Physical Health In Multiple Ways
Older women who have still maintained their sex lives are less likely to experience hypertension, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Another study by Adam and Eve found that athletes performed better after having sex or masturbating. And for those with penises, more frequent ejaculation is linked to lowered prostate cancer risk, according to a study in European Urology.
Myth 1: Sex Is Good Exercise
If you want to do something good for your long-term health and sense of well-being, sex may be the answer. But if you're looking for a workout, it's likely not (unless you get really creative with your positions). "Don't fool yourself," says Prause. "It's no substitute for a trip to the gym."
Myth 2: We Owe Sex's Health Benefits To Orgasms
You often hear about the health benefits of orgasm, but arousal alone actually seems to produce these effects, says Prause. That's good news for the 10 percent or more of women who haven't orgasmed and the many more who have trouble orgasming with a partner.
Myth 3: Getting Aroused And Not Coming Is Unhealthy
Both those with penises and those with vaginas can experience pelvic congestion — sometimes known as "blue balls" — when they get aroused and don't orgasm. However, the worst this can lead to is slight discomfort, says Prause. It won't damage your genitals — or any part of your body, for that matter.
The bottom line? "Don't judge the type of sex you have," says Prause. "As far as we know, sexual experiences that are solo versus partnered — and whether they have an orgasm or don't — they all seem to do some nice things for our bodies. So, if you're just being intimate with yourself or you're intimate with your partner but don't feel like having intercourse or taking the time to have an orgasm, all these levels of intimacy probably carry some benefit to them."