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When erectile dysfunction occurs, men tend to curse their luck, and then their uncooperative penis, fixating on the area in which the issue has made itself most apparent.
But the reality is, getting an erection is a holistic process, involving a wide range of body systems and processes. It’s important to look at the process that takes place during an erection and why it sometimes falters.
The penis is lined with two tubes of spongy tissue (the corpus cavernosa). During an erection, those tissues fill with blood via small blood vessels, causing the penis to stiffen and enlarge. When the blood drains out, the penis softens and shrinks.
Guys who experience ED find that draining happens sooner than they’d like, causing the loss of their erection.
ED has a range of potential causes—from chronic illness to performance anxiety to depression—and a number of effective treatments, including medication such as sildenafil (brand name Viagra) or tadalafil (brand name Cialis).
Some men wonder if physical exercises are one of those effective treatments; if they can “build up” the muscles and vessels responsible for blood flow to the penis.
Well, the answer is no, and yes.
- Erectile dysfunction (ED) is the inability to get or maintain an erection sufficient for satisfying sex.
- ED has many potential causes and a number of effective treatments.
- Pelvic floor exercises are not one of them, unfortunately.
- But regular cardiovascular exercise improves heart health, which can also improve the health of your penis, potentially resolving ED.
- But if you’re experiencing ED, it’s a good idea to consult a healthcare provider because it could be a sign of cardiac issues.
Exercises for ED
Pelvic floor exercises (Kegels)
The most famous sex-specific exercise—perhaps for a dearth of competition—is the Kegel. When doing Kegels, you tighten the pelvic floor muscles (those responsible for stopping and starting urination) repeatedly, which strengthens them. Kegels have a number of benefits, but unfortunately, resolving ED isn’t one of them. They don’t seem to improve erections (Silva, 2016).
“Kegel exercises work out specific muscle groups in the floor of the pelvis, but they don’t specifically exercise the muscles responsible for erectile function,” says Landon Trost, MD, a urologist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “They are ‘smooth muscle’ rather than ‘skeletal muscle,’ which means we don’t have a good way to directly control them.”
That said, Kegels may help if you experience premature ejaculation. “Some patients who suffer from premature ejaculation will use Kegels to slow down ejaculation during intercourse, and there are multiple new treatments that are being designed that directly focus on stimulating (“shocking”) those muscle groups to help slow them down,” says Trost. “There have even been studies looking at Botox into some of those muscle groups to try to better control premature ejaculation.”
What Kegels can do: Help prevent urinary and bowel incontinence and pesky dribbling after urination. They also can improve your overall sexual experience by giving you more control over when you ejaculate.
This doesn’t mean no exercise can improve your erectile function. Studies have found that cardio can have real benefits.
“In contrast to Kegel exercises, general cardiovascular exercise has a clear and positive impact on erectile function,” says Trost. “Results can be seen as early as one week with moderate-intensity exercise. And the impacts of exercise can be roughly equivalent to taking something like Viagra. Exercise can clearly have other benefits on sexual health too, beyond just the erections (libido, mood, likely more).”
Trost points to a study that found as little as 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, three times a week, can improve erectile function by 86% in certain men. “And other studies have shown a decreased risk of ever developing ED among men who exercise,” says Trost. In fact, a study in the Journal of Urology found that risk was reduced by 30% among men who run 90 minutes a week. (Bacon, 2006).
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Exercise can have a double benefit if your ED might be attributable to psychological issues: Aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce stress and depression.
It’d be safe to say that most men have a fairly strong sentimental attachment to their penis. But the relationship between the cardiovascular system and the genitals runs much deeper: What’s good for your heart is good for your penis. “There is clearly a robust connection between penile and heart health,” says Trost. “The most eye-opening study on the topic showed that men who have ED in their 40s have a nearly 50-times-greater likelihood of having coronary artery disease compared to those who don’t have ED.” That difference declines with age, to the point that men in their 70s have only a 1.3-times-greater likelihood of coronary artery disease. “If you have organic (not purely psychogenic) ED in your 40s or early 50s, you really need to get in and see a cardiologist,” says Trost.
The reason for this connection: The same tissue types in the penis are spread throughout the body. How well they’re functioning is easier to see in the penis compared to the heart. In fact, ED can be the first sign of cardiac problems, particularly in younger men. “You don’t have a good way to open up the heart and check how well the blood vessels and smooth muscle are doing there,” says Trost. “But in the penis, if the smooth muscle and blood vessels aren’t working well, it becomes very apparent when you aren’t able to achieve or maintain an erection satisfactory for intercourse. We can identify more minor changes in penile health, in contrast to the heart or brain. For these reasons, the penis has often been referred to as the barometer for overall health.”
So the best course is to keep your arteries healthy. You can do that by:
- Eating a heart-healthy diet
- Reducing your sodium intake
- Quitting smoking (or refusing to start)
- Following the American Heart Association’s guidelines for exercise: At least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (such as running, biking, rowing, or swimming).
- Managing diabetes or high blood pressure or preventing those conditions
- Drinking alcohol in moderation
For more expert advice, read everything you ever wanted to know about heart health here.
Remember that the penis can serve as a “check engine” light of the body. If you’re experiencing erectile dysfunction, it’s a good idea to consult a healthcare provider as soon as possible. That will allow you to rule out any larger health issues in addition to getting things back on track downstairs, improving your sex life, and your quality of life overall.