Improving male fertility with exercise
Exercise is any bodily activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness. This includes swimming, running, jogging, walking, and dancing, just to name a few. You probably already know that physical activity has a long list of documented health benefits, both physically and mentally, but how does it affect semen quality?
Numerous investigators have attempted to quantify the effects of physical activity on semen parameters. Like studies examining other lifestyle factors, such as diet or smoking, the majority of the studies rely on self-reported physical activity. For physical activity and diet this is not trivial since many individuals have a poor memory of their past activity level. Opposite to physical activity is physical inactivity, also called being sedentary in the research environment. This has been studied both as the lack of exercise but also by the amount of time spent sitting or watching television. However, a handful of research groups have attempted to control for physical activity by either randomized trial or through small cohorts designed to invasively assess the physiology of exercise response. This is the science we will be looking at here.
The key is a balance in exercising
Physical inactivity is associated with a range of risk factors such as obesity and cardiovascular disease to name a few. When looking at the effect on the reproductive function, the research suggests that inactivity is not a good choice if you are trying to get pregnant.
In a study of 1,210 men from Denmark on the effect of watching TV, researchers found that watching TV for more than 5 hours a day was associated with a decrease in the total sperm count as well as the total amount of progressive motile sperm cells. The researchers of the study suggest that hours spend watching television is an indicator of physical inactivity. Already at 2.6-5 hours of television a day, a minor decline in total sperm count and total progressive motile sperm cells was observed. In agreement with the finding, the participants who self-rated their physical fitness as poor (on a scale of Poor to Good) had a reduction in total sperm count of about 35% . This was also found in a study from Rochester of 189 men, where watching TV was associated with a 44% lower sperm count compared to non-television watchers .
A similar result was found in a study of 161 individuals who were grouped as inactive, recreationally active, and elite athletes. The recreationally active men showed an increase in total motile sperm cells of nearly 200% compared to the inactive men, which was associated with a lower amount of oxidative stress. Interestingly, the elite athletes had a lower amount of motile sperm cells and a higher amount of oxidative stress, suggesting that some elite sports may be harmful for fertility . This has also been shown in a range of other studies. The negative effect is a way of observing when overtraining sets in, which is when a person exceeds their body’s ability to recover from strenuous exercise. At this point a person may have a decrease in performance due to fatigue. This was shown in a group of 286 men who underwent 60 months of 120 minutes running 5 times per week – a decrease in their semen quality was observed, as well as a decrease in testosterone levels.
So overall, the literature informs us that we should be moderately active, and not necessarily undertaking rigorous exercise regimens for the best fertility outcomes.
What type of exercise should you do?
It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before starting, if you haven’t exercised for a long time or have chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis.
There are a number of studies showing that a training program of 14 to 24 weeks may improve semen quality and your chances of pregnancy    . The studies investigated both aerobic exercise, also known as endurance exercise or cardio, which increases your heart rate and breathing frequency – as well as anaerobic exercise, also known as resistance exercise or strength training, which works on strengthening your muscles, joints, and bones with e.g. weight lifting or resistance band workouts. Positive effects were seen in mainly inactive males, starting a program with exercise 3 times a week for around 45 minutes. Both aerobic and resistance exercise were shown to have a positive effect on semen quality and reproductive hormones. The studies also showed some decrease in oxidative stress. Importantly, doing exercise increased the chances of the males becoming pregnant with their partner   .
In one of the studies of 1,296 men, exercise increased the total number of sperms by 84.7%, which resulted in 191 out of 285 men getting pregnant in the exercise group but only 7 out of 263 in the control group. The largest effect was seen in men with a low semen quality (asthenospermia (low motility)/oligospermia (low sperm count)). The exercise they followed was a combination of aerobic and resistance training, which included 30-35 minutes of walking/running on a treadmill and then 30-35 minutes of resistance training with exercises for all major muscle groups. The exercises included:
- Exercises to strengthen the upper body:
Bench press (pectoralis), chest cross (horizontal flexion of the shoulder joint), shoulder press (trapezius and latissimus dorsi), pull-downs (back muscles), biceps curls, triceps extension, upright row, trunk extension, and exercises for abdominal muscles (sit-ups).
- Exercises to strengthen the lower body:
Leg press (quadriceps femoris), calf raises, hip extensions (biceps femoris), hamstring curls, hip abduction, and hip adduction.
In the exercise programs from the studies, the men started at 50% of VO2 max meaning at 50% of their maximal pulse (220-age) and 50% of their 1 repetition maximum (RM) for the exercises, repeating 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions.
The men in the studies increased the intensity by 5% each week until week 4 where they reached 70% of VO2 max/1RM. They were then re-evaluated by professionals and started again.
The ExSeed exercise programs
As you can read from above, a balance in exercise is the key to healthy sperm. A little exercise is better than nothing – starting to go for a walk with your partner or performing light exercises are better than not doing anything at all. Make sure to get up during the office hours and don’t spend too much time sitting down.
If you want to kickstart a training regimen you can find exercise programs in the ExSeed app where we have designed weekly plans for beginners and trained people.
Otherwise many gyms offer great workout team training that combines weight-lifting with cardio training that can feel really rewarding.
Small changes can have a big impact on your overall health and your path to fatherhood. Most important is that you have fun when exercising and listen to your body, so you don’t overdo it!