It’s that time of year again, when thoughts of changes you hope to make in the New Year dance with the sugarplums in your head. Will you commit to eating more fruits and veggies or dust off that treadmill? While wellness-related resolutions — from staying fit to quitting smoking — are among the most common, sexual health seldom gets a mention. And that is most unfortunate.
“If you do not include sexuality in your New Year’s resolutions, now is the time,” said Amy Jo Goddard, a sexual empowerment expert in Los Angeles. “It’s such an important part of our lives, and yet most people leave it out of their goals and plans for their year.”
Not only can setting your sights on improved sexual well-being enhance your overall health, but you may also have some serious fun in the process.
1. Prioritize Pleasure
While striving for more sensual pleasure may sound superficial, it may be one of the most powerful steps in living a richer and even healthier life.
“Pleasure is not whimsical or unimportant,” said Goddard. “It is core to our experience as human beings. We need pleasure to remind us of the power of our bodies, our senses and living wholeheartedly.” Pleasure connects you to your primal instincts, she added, and when you experience more of it, you’re reminded of what is true, important and possible.
Such optimism seems key for self-care steps, like staying on top of wellness needs. Pleasure also invites gratitude. That’s important because the more grateful you are, the more likely you’ll be to nurture yourself and your relationships.
Physiologically speaking, sexual pleasure tends to be medicinal in and of itself. A study published in Cephalalgia in April 2013 showed that sexual activity can help reduce or alleviate migraine and cluster headaches for some people. Orgasmic sex may help manage morning sickness and menstrual cramps, improve cardiovascular health and provide some protection from prostate cancer.
To invite these benefits, prioritize sexual pleasure as you would other important obligations. Add it to your do-to list or calendar, or simply check in with yourself regularly to see if you are in need of sexy play.
2. Use a Quality Lube
Personal lubricants aren’t just for health problems. Even if they were, there should be no shame in using something that’s good for you. Lubricants can ease dryness and discomfort, increase pleasure and arousal and make it easier to don a condom.
“Everybody differs with regards to natural lubrication,” said Kayna Cassard, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy in Venice, California.
She recommends choosing a lube that suits your specific needs and avoiding those containing harsh chemicals. “When a person uses a lube, they are putting it on very special and tender places. So it’s important to realize that what you put on your skin goes into your skin,” she added.
What lubricants are safe for you?
Water-based lubricants are great with or without latex condoms and simple to rinse off. Avoid varieties containing glycerin and parabens, which cause irritation for some people. Parabens also have mild estrogen-like effects. While research is limited, some evidence shows a link between parabens and breast cancer. Organic lubricants tend to not contain these additives and may bring additional, skin-friendly ingredients, such as aloe.
Oil-based lubricants, such as coconut oil, may be a great pick if you’re sensitive to certain additives or want to moisturize your skin. They last longer than water-based lubes, but can’t be used with many condoms because they break down latex. Some oils, such as petroleum jelly and baby oil, may up your risk for a UTI or vaginal infection.
Silicone-based lubricants are the slipperiest, which can make activities such as anal play more enjoyable. Because they won’t damage latex, you can use them with or without condoms. They tend to last longer than water-based options, and many are glycerin-free. On the downside, silicone can damage sex toys and leave a lingering sticky residue that’s difficult to wash off.
3. Pay Attention to Your Pelvis
While expert opinions are mixed as far as the ideal frequency of pelvic exams, everyone seems to agree that they matter.
“It’s important that all people with vaginas get pelvic exams on a regular basis in order to maintain whole-body health,” said Goddard. “When we do not tend to our sexual and reproductive health (like any other part of our health), we put ourselves at risk for harm, deterioration, neglect and issues we won’t be able to see."
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women visit their OB-GYN at least once per year. Your doctor may or may not recommend a pap smear at that time. Many health care providers now recommend a pap smear — which screens for cervical cancer — every three years from age 21 to 29 in seemingly healthy individuals, and every five years from then on. People with penises should have their sexual health addressed as part of annual physicals.
Regardless, it’s important to see your doctor if you notice anything that seems not right. Toward this end, Goddard suggests regularly examining yourself.
“Obviously, you cannot do your own lab work, but you can learn how to look at your cervix and pay attention to what is going on with your genitals on a regular basis,” she said. “The key is to know what is normal for you. And when something is out of the ordinary, pay attention.”
Observe your pelvis routinely, optionally using a mirror for a closer look. Examples of irregularities to look out for, said Goddard, include bumps that weren’t there before and changes in your menstrual cycle.
4. Play Hard and Rest
Exercise and sleep bring myriad benefits to the bedroom. Physical activity keeps blood flowing to your genitals, which plays a huge role in arousal. Sufficient rest also allows for turn-on by ensuring you have the energy to engage sexually and by helping your body function at its best.
For mind-body connectedness with physical perks, Cassard recommends yoga.
“There are so many wonderful reasons yoga improves sexual health,” she said. “It promotes self-compassion, loosens muscles, builds strength and improves physical and mental stamina while reducing stress, anxiety and depression.”
Exercise also enhances sleep, so aiming to improve both is a win-win that goes beyond sex. A study published in Mental Health and Physical Activity in December 2011 linked getting at least 150 minutes of exercise per week with significantly improved sleep and heightened daytime alertness.
“Sexual functioning oftentimes becomes a luxury activity and gets put on the back burner when we’re trying to survive in making life manageable,” said Cassard.
When you get enough sleep, she added, you’re taking care of your survival needs so you have greater access to those perceived luxuries. If you start turning in a bit earlier most nights, you’ll likely have more energy for spicy play and exercise. While people’s needs vary, most adults fare best with seven to nine nightly hours.