Study: exercise can boost low sex drive linked to antidepressants

A study from the University of Texas suggests exercise can alleviate some sexual side effects of antidepressants

(Photo: Olivia Rempel)

“I stopped feeling horny for about a month and a half,” says Diana, a student from the University of King’s College whose name we’ve changed.

Diana took antidepressants for a few months last summer, but stopped because she didn’t like the way they made her feel.

“You’ll try different methods to have an orgasm, try sex in the shower, going out for a hot date, getting drunk and it just doesn’t work.”

She says this side effect can be devastating, and it’s hard to talk about even the fact of being on antidepressants or having depression.

“I don’t tell a lot of people because I don’t want them to think I’m a bomb about to explode at any time, because most of the time I’m not,” says Diana.

Dr. Tierney Lorenz, a postdoctoral fellow at the Kinsey Institute, says “I think as a society [we should be] a little bit more open to realizing that now one in four American women holds a prescription for an antidepressant medication.”

More common than you think

According to a 2006 study, 96 per cent of women who take antidepressants experience some kind of sexual side effect.

Lorenz says “it was a very, very shocking, important study… 96 per cent, that’s practically everyone that experiences some kind of disturbance in their sexual function.”

She says the most commonly reported sexual side effects are decreased sexual desire and difficulties getting sexually aroused.

Lorenz is one of the authors of a study published late last year in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety, which looks at how women can deal with these side effects through exercise.

The study asked 52 women, split into groups, to complete exercise routines immediately before sexual activity and separately from sexual activity throughout the week.

She says most of the participants in the study reported that the first time they had to schedule their sex and exercise together, it felt awkward but most got over it.

“One woman even told me that she had decided that because this had worked so well for her that she continued to do this exercise and sex routine indefinitely,” says Lorenz, “and she called me up a few weeks later and said ‘I had to stop doing it because my husband now gets really turned on every time I get sweaty.’” The study was done in Texas last August, which can get quite hot in the summer.

The study shows exercise is tremendously helpful in dealing with sexual side effects when sex occurs shortly afterwards.


Before this study, what did women do to deal with these sexual side effects? “Nothing! That’s the shocking thing,” says Lorenz.

Although there were some clinical trials for additional medications to go on top of antidepressants, a lot of times they just didn’t work. “Every drug that you add adds a new side effect,” says Lorenz.

“Women were instructed to stop taking the medication for a few days,” says Lorenz, “In the hopes that their side effects would subside long enough for them to be able to have sex, which conjures in my mind an image of incredible pressure to have sex for just a couple of days when you don’t have these side effects then ‘back to normal.’”

Lorenz’s research is part of a new body of research around behavioral management strategies, which means changing your lifestyle, timing when you take your drug around your day, and doing things like exercise to mitigate negative side effects.

“Instead of telling women, ‘just wait it out’ or ‘you have to make a decision about what’s more important to you, your sex life or your mood,’” says Lorenz, “these new studies, of which mine is a part, are really taking the focus of ‘OK, let’s look at different ways of managing these side effects without changing a drug you know works for you.’”

Elizabeth, whose name we have changed, is a student at the University of King’s College who currently takes antidepressants.

“It’s nice to know that people are looking into this,” she says. But, “I can’t really focus on having a boyfriend or a sex life right now, because I’m too busy making sure I’m on track and adding that into my life would just be a whole other stress.”

Elizabeth isn’t surprised that exercise can have such a positive effect. “When I’m having a bad day and I go exercise, the effect on my mood is like night and day… People feel more confident after exercise.”

But “I think that the field as a whole of sexual medicine has really improved a lot in the last decade or so,” says Lorenz, “from this mentality that we need to find a wonder pill that we can pop, then everything will be cured to understanding that a pill is a very powerful tool within a larger context of improving the sexual relationship and communication.”