April 28, 2010 -- Brazil's Minister of Health has created a stir this week by suggesting that to get healthier, his country's people try to have sex five times a week.
Minister Jose Gomes Temporao said he's worried about Brazilians' rising rates of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, so along with the usual advice on diet and exercise, he thought people should make love more often.
"It's not a joke, I'm serious. Getting physical exercise regularly also means having sex, obviously protected sex," Temporao told reporters Monday in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia, according to the U.K's Telegraph. His remarks were part of the launch of a campaign to reduce blood pressure in Brazil.
The Brazilian Health Ministry reported that that 21.5 percent of Brazilians had high blood pressure in 2006, and the number increased to 24.4 percent in 2009, according to the Associated Press.
The idea might appeal to some regardless of their health goals, but experts are divided on just how beneficial sex can be for preventing chronic diseases.
Take exercise -- researchers say when it comes to the simple physical health benefits of working out, sex hardly compares to riding a bike.
"You're not going to get the same [physical health] benefit as going out for a two-mile jog," said Dr. Jamie Feldman, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.
Looking at the standard unit of exercise called METs (metabolic units), Feldman said sexual activity ranges from 2 METs to 3 or 4 METs during orgasm. That's on par with walking at 2 miles per hour on level ground. By comparison, a leisurely bike ride clocks in at 6-7 METs.
"Sexual activity provides some degree of modest exercise," said Feldman, who added that every little bit of activity counts. "But it's not the same as getting moderate exercise for 30 minutes a day."
"Some people might like it more than jogging --- so in that sense that is helpful," she said.
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But some researchers won't even go that far. Although people might get out of breath or break into a sweat when they make love, experts say it can't realistically go on for long enough to bring the health benefits that a regular workout does.
"Exercise has to be of a certain duration and intensity," said Walter R. Thompson, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and regents professor of Kinesiology & Health at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
"As intense as active sex can be, it's not just as long of a duration to see any physiological benefit in terms of exercise," he said.
But other researchers say sex does lead to a healthier life, even if the correlation is subtle and not precisely understood.
"There is an extreme dearth of research in this area," said Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a clinical professor of surgery at the University of California at San Diego and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
"It's not something the NIH spills millions of dollars into to see how orgasm makes people feel better," said Goldstein.
But, Goldstein said, large reviews of many studies have shown a correlation between a healthy sex life and a healthy, long life.
For instance a large review of the literature published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found a correlation between a healthy sex life and a lower risk for prostate cancer, breast cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Goldstein said the study even found a link between a person's sex life and reduced signs of physical stress during an impromptu public speaking task.
"Those people who had sex the night before [public speaking], guess what they found? They had less pulse increase, and their blood pressure was far lower," said Goldstein.
Goldstein said the mind-body connection of people who have an active sex life may also lead to health benefits.
"Sex activity at the end of the day involves intimacy, sharing, communications that other activities just don't have," said Goldstein.
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"There's only one conclusion you can draw [from the review] that makes a lot of sense is that God intended us to have sexual activity," he said.
Feldman also pointed to a recent study in the British Medical Journal of 6,000 Americans. aged 25-84. It found that people with active sex lives have healthier, longer lives.
"Really what they found was that sexual activity, quality of sex life, and interest in sex were positively associated with good heath in middle age and later in life," said Feldman. "Men and women who were reporting good physical health were more likely to report good sexual health."
The reverse was true, especially for men. "Men in poor health have a big effect on erectile dysfunction," said Feldman.
Feldman admitted that the study, which was observational , couldn't answer the "chicken and the egg" question: does good health improve a person's sex life, or does a person's sex life improve their health?
"It's very clear that if you have good health you're going to be able to have better sex... but there's probably some feedback the other way," said Feldman. "The more that you have a good sex life, the more you are going to [stay healthy] and keep it that way."
Even if the Brazilian health minister hit on the secret to a healthy life, some were taken aback by the five-days-a-week recommendation.
"May be there's a little overzealousness -- but from those who study sexual medicine it's a very interesting challenge to resume sexual activity in people's lives," said Goldstein.
Sexual educators also point out that approaching sex as a way to keep blood pressure down might not be the most effective motivation for couples.
"Nobody needs more should in their lives. Nobody," said Judith Steinhart, a New York City consultant certified by the American Association of Sex Counselors and Educators.
From her experience, Steinhart predicted some couples might fall into "drudgery" or disagreements over how often they should be having sex.
"I'm not saying automatically it could become guilt or manipulation... but one could argue, For my health you have to have sex with me whether you like it or not,'" said Steinhart.
Rather than think of it as a task for being healthy, Steinhart said couples should think of sex as an activity that's both fun and good for you.
"You could say to someone, 'Come walk the dog,' or 'Go dancing,' 'Come exercise,' or, 'let's have sex,'" said Steinhart. "Just remember that the Brazilian health minister said this is in a context of being healthy."