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Home » Health » Sexual Health » Sex or Cardio: Which Burns More Calories?

Sex or Cardio: Which Burns More Calories?

An image of a couple kissing

Bae is coming over tonight. Does that mean you can skip the gym today, and do your workout in bed? Replacing your normal cardio routine with a nice tumble in the sheets is very tempting, especially during those frigid winter months. But how much of a workout are you really getting from the bump and grind?

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In this article, we’ll take a look at the average calories burned during sex.

How to calculate calories burned during sex

Before we dive into the good stuff, let’s take a moment to establish how the math works. The best way to estimate calories burned during an activity is to use the MET (metabolic equivalent) measurement. One MET is the amount of energy you expend when you are sitting quietly, not doing anything1. One MET is one kilocalorie (colloquially called a calorie) per kilogram of body weight per hour. So, if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms), you will burn 68 calories over the course one hour just sitting and doing nothing.

The Compendium of Physical Activities contains an evidence-based catalogue of how many METs are required to perform various activities. For example, a leisurely bike ride (at a pace less than 10mph) is worth 4 METs. To find out how many calories a 150 pound person will burn during an hour-long leisurely bike ride, we multiply:

weight in kilos (68) x MET value (4) x time (1 hr) = 272 calories

The calorie values in this article have been calculated for a woman who weighs 130 pounds and a man who weighs 150.

Do you burn more calories during sex or running?

According to the Compendium, running at a pace of 12 minutes per mile requires 8.3 METs, while sexual activity that requires “active vigorous effort” is only worth 2.8 METs.1 So a 150 pound person who ran for 30 minutes at that pace would burn about 280 calories. The same person having sex for 30 minutes (if you can manage to last that long) would only burn about 95 calories.

A study2  out of the University of Montreal confirmed these estimates in a laboratory setting. Researchers put men and women on a treadmill and asked them to run at a modest pace for 30 minutes. They measured the amount of calories they burned using a SenseWear armband. Men burned 276 calories on average, while women burned 213 on average.

The participants then wore the armbands while they had sex with their partners (the average sex session was 25 minutes). Sex burned about 100 calories for men and 76 for women.

How many calories are burned while kissing?

The Compendium gives a value of 1.3 METs for sexual activity that involves “passive, light effort” including kissing and hugging.1 Let’s say a man and a woman are making out for 15 minutes (maybe they’re still in high school). The man will burn about 22 calories during that make-out session and the woman about 19.

Do some sex positions burn more calories?

The Compendium does not go as far as to give MET values for each sex position. It only distinguishes between “active, vigorous effort” (2.8 METs), “general, moderate effort” (1.8 METs) and “passive, light effort” (1.3 METs).1 However, any sexually active person would probably say that certain sex positions require more effort than others. Which leads to the next major question …

An image of a happy couple in bed

Do you burn more calories during sex when you’re on top?

A 1984 study3  actually measured the MET expenditures for men during sex when they were on top verses when they were on the bottom. To get precise measurements, the researchers attached electrodes to the men and had them wear masks to measure how much oxygen they were using.

Interestingly, the researchers concluded that when men were on the bottom, they expended an average of 2.5 METs, and when they were on top they expended an average of 3.3 METs—which is significantly higher than the Compendium estimate for “vigorous” sex. It’s worth noting, though, that the aforementioned study only included 10 couples, and there was great variation among the subjects. For example, one man’s MET expenditure when he was on top was 5.4, while another’s was only 2.0 in the same position.

How many calories do you burn in each sex position?

For some strange reason, there isn’t a lot of published research measuring how many calories are burned in different sex positions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t estimate the average calories burned during sex using the data we already have.

Given that the study cited in the last section only had 10 subjects, we’ll stick with the Compendium MET values to estimate how many calories are burned in the five basic sex positions (No, we’re not going into the fancy ones like Italian chandelier. We’ll be here all day.). However, we are going to take some creative liberties.

Research has shown that men only last an average of 5.4 minutes—6.5 if you only look at the 18-30 year age range.4 But we’ll assume that all of you reading an article about how many calories sex burns are probably overachievers, so we’ll give you 20 minutes when we’re estimating the calorie values.

We’re also going to assume that you readers like to be extra not just in the duration of your love-making but also in the effort you put in, so there will come a point when we’ll start going above the MET chart. To make the math simpler, we’re not going to include foreplay, although we recognize the heteronormative implications of this decision.

An image of a gay couple hugging

Missionary

Let’s assume that for missionary, the partner on top is putting in vigorous effort and the partner on the bottom is putting in moderate effort (hold her legs up, pulling her partner closer, etc.). Doing this for 20 minutes, the man would burn 63 calories (about 3 calories per minute) and the woman would burn 35 calories (about 1.75 calories per minute).

Again, we recognize that our heteronormative assumptions are problematic. But we hope that by the end of this article you’ll know how to do your own calculations so you can get a value that’s more accurate for you and your partner.

Cowgirl (or reverse cowgirl)

You might make an argument that cowgirl and reverse cowgirl are two distinct positions, but in terms of the effort you’re putting in for each, it’s probably the same. Here the woman is doing most of the work, although the man can also help, so we’re just going to switch the MET values from missionary. She’ll burn about 55 calories over 20 minutes, and he’ll burn about 40.

Spooning

When it comes to spooning, both partners are putting in active effort. This position may seem easy because both partners are lying down, but it also requires both partners to really work their core muscles. You can take things super slow in this position, but let’s assume you’re treating it like a real ab workout. The man will burn about 63 calories and the woman 55.

Doggie style

Here’s where we start deviating from the Compendium, even if just to make this article more interesting by coming up with some different values. Doggie style, arguably, requires more effort from the penetrating partner than missionary position or spooning. Rather than lying mostly flat, you’re up on your knees, or maybe you’re standing at the side of the bed, which requires more energy. Doggie also might enable you to go much faster than missionary—elevating your heart rate more.

Let’s say the man in doggie style expends 3.3 METs—the average “man on top” expenditure from the previously mentioned study. Assuming that value, the man will burn about 74 calories. The woman is probably putting in moderate effort for doggie, so she’ll burn about 35.

What sex position is best for burning calories?

Standing up

Sex in a full standing position is undoubtedly the most difficult for both partners, and it probably falls well above the Compendium’s estimate for “vigorous” sexual activity. Unless both partners are of equal height, the man is going to have to support most of the woman’s weight. This turns sex into a kind of resistance training exercise — think about how difficult it would be just to hold 100 pounds for 20 minutes.

The woman, for her part, is probably going to use her inner thigh muscles and her upper body strength to hold onto her partner, as well as her core strength to stay in the right position.

RELATED: Here’s What Intermittent Fasting Is Doing to Your Sex Drive

For standing position, let’s give the man a MET expenditure of 6.0, the Compendium’s value for power lifting. We’ll give the woman a MET expenditure of 5.5, the Compendium’s value for horseback riding (given all that inner thigh work she’s doing).1 This means the man will burn about 134 calories and the woman will burn about 107. That’s a pretty great workout for 20 minutes.

An image of a hugging couple

The bottom line

The average calories burned during sex is going to be far lower than the average calories burned during a typical cardio workout. But there are ways that you can maximize the fitness potential of your sex life. Certain toys, like swings (examples here) can enable you to try more creative positions that require more muscle engagement.

The great thing about sex is that as long as all parties consent, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. So experiment with new things, and see what really gets your heart rate up.

1.
Ainsworth B, Haskell W, Whitt M, et al. Compendium of physical activities: an update of activity codes and MET intensities. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000;32(9 Suppl):S498-504. [PubMed]
2.
Frappier J, Toupin I, Levy J, Aubertin-Leheudre M, Karelis A. Energy expenditure during sexual activity in young healthy couples. PLoS One. 2013;8(10):e79342. [PubMed]
3.
Bohlen J, Held J, Sanderson M, Patterson R. Heart rate, rate-pressure product, and oxygen uptake during four sexual activities. Arch Intern Med. 1984;144(9):1745-1748. [PubMed]
4.
Waldinger M, Quinn P, Dilleen M, Mundayat R, Schweitzer D, Boolell M. A multinational population survey of intravaginal ejaculation latency time. J Sex Med. 2005;2(4):492-497. [PubMed]
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Katherine Ripley

Katherine is a professional writer with over three years of experience. Her areas of expertise include health, food, environmentalism, and animals. To view more of Katherine's samples, please visit her online portfolio: https://www.clippings.me/katherineripley.
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