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As Michelle Haynesworth struggled to shed 40 pounds after her first daughter was born five years ago, she lost something else instead -- her libido. "I didn't enjoy sex anymore," says Michelle, 35, now a student in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. "I did it only because I knew it would hurt my husband's feelings if I didn't." She always insisted on the missionary position, to hide her "jiggly" body beneath his, and she felt self-conscious every time he touched her stomach, thighs, or butt. "All that would go through my mind was, Let's get this over with so I can get some clothes back on," she recalls.
Whenever newlywed Shawna Wolf's husband gives her a wanna-get-it-on glance, the 23-year-old music teacher in Strasburg, North Dakota, heads him off by suggesting they take their dogs for a walk. "I got in the best shape of my life for our wedding, but afterward I gained a few pounds, especially in my middle," she says. "My confidence is so zapped, I leave my shirt on during sex."
Bloating is enough to kill the mood for Lora Jacobson, 39, a health care meeting planner in Phoenix. "When my waistband is a little snug, I just don't feel sexy," she says. "I want to be in the dark under the covers."
If you've ever felt your desire flicker along with the fit of your skinny jeans, you can relate. Your readiness to romp often depends on how you're feeling about your naked body. "Many women lose their sexual confidence when they put on weight, but insecurity can also stem from something as subtle as feeling like you have poor muscle tone," says Susan Kellogg Spadt, PhD, director of sexual medicine at the Pelvic and Sexual Health Institute in Philadelphia. "In my practice, I see it daily in women of all weights."How the Scale Sabotages Your Sex Life
Studies show that having a body mass index (BMI) that's too high or too low messes with your mojo. When you gain or lose body fat, a slew of hormones affecting your libido are thrown out of whack. "It's a chain reaction," says Jennifer Berman, MD, a urologist and sexual-health expert in Los Angeles. Your levels of a natural chemical known as sex-hormone-binding globulin increase, which causes bioavailable testosterone, the hormone that stimulates sexual desire, to fall. In addition, high cholesterol associated with obesity can lead to plaque buildup in the blood vessels that supply the pelvic region, slowing blood flow to the clitoris and genitals and annihilating sexual arousal.
Yet even more potent than the physiological effect of your weight is how you feel about it. "If you're insecure and you focus on the way your body looks or what your partner is thinking about it during sex, you're not going to be in the mood," points out Cindy Meston, PhD, director of the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas in Austin.
Meston's research has shown that a woman's sex drive is strongly linked to body confidence -- specifically her perception of the areas of her body that can be easily seen by others (think stomach and thighs) -- rather than her BMI. In one study, women were asked to compare six of their body parts to those of models in 20 different photographs. Then the women watched an erotic film while hooked up to a monitor that measured their vaginal blood flow. "The women felt turned on, but physically they experienced a significant decrease in sexual response to the film," says lead author Yasisca Pujols Khouri, a doctoral student in Meston's lab. "Comparing yourself with a thin ideal can negatively affect your sexual response without your even realizing it."
When desire dips, there is no magic pill to -- poof! -- instantly restore it. The good news is, you don't need one. There are little things you can do each day to light your own fire. "Don't wait for libido to explode like some magical volcano in your body," Kellogg Spadt says. "You have to foster and nurture it." Here's how.
Work out to get turned on.
Research shows that women who exercise feel better about their bodies and have more energy for sex. Physical activity releases hormones, such as endorphins and dopamine, that are believed to affect sex drive. Best of all, working up a sweat increases sexual sensations almost immediately, Meston's groundbreaking studies have found. "It's the best cure for sluggish sexual arousal that we have," she says. Doing just 20 minutes of cardio at 75 percent of your maximum effort -- when you can speak only in choppy sentences -- increases sexual excitement by a remarkable 150 percent. "Exercise gets the body revved up," Meston explains. "So then, when you're in a sexual situation later, blood is sent to the genitals more quickly and intensely." The payoff? Better arousal and stronger orgasms.
The best sexercises are those that increase blood flow to the thighs, buttocks, hamstrings, and pelvis, such as yoga, jogging, cycling, squats, and lunges. Schedule at least 20 minutes a few times a week and then get busy with your partner.
Add sexuality superfoods to your shopping list. Those rich in antioxidants, fatty acids, zinc, and the amino acid asparagine can help boost both mood and libido, Dr. Berman says. Her top picks: asparagus, avocados, blueberries, salmon, and omega-3-enriched eggs.
Overall, opt for a steady menu of heart- and brain-healthy foods, which feed your desire by preventing plaque buildup in the arteries and boosting mood, an important precursor to arousal. In fact, research has shown that the Mediterranean diet, which is full of fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, and fish, is ideal for sexual health. A recent study found that diabetic women who stuck closest to the Mediterranean diet were less likely to experience sexual dysfunction than those who didn't. "As soon as women start to eat healthfully, they feel better about themselves and more sexually confident," Kellogg Spadt says.
Bare your bod.
A lot of women are so busy dwelling on their perceived flaws during sex that they sabotage their own pleasure. The cure: Doing a daily ritual to reduce anxiety about being seen nude, Meston says. Instead of grabbing for your robe post-shower, walk around the bathroom naked and purposely look in every mirror you pass, gazing at your whole body rather than your problem areas. Soon being bare will become so second nature that you'll be able to tune out your inner critic and tune into all the feel-good sensations when you're doing the deed.
Rendezvous with you.
Think of it as a sexual workout that's good for your health. Giving yourself an orgasm when your partner is not around brings blood flow to your genital area, nourishing those cells and tissues and increasing your immunity against bacteria and yeast. And because good sex and orgasms lead to more sex and orgasms, it will help get you in the mood for the real deal. A survey of more than 2,000 women found that the 53 percent who used vibrators scored higher on measures of desire, arousal, and orgasm.
Do you really have reason to be so self-conscious about your body? Does your partner even care about the cellulite on your left thigh or the flabby inch you can pinch on your right arm? "There's a huge disconnect between what a woman thinks her partner is attracted to and what he actually is attracted to," Meston says. Is he getting an erection? Enough said.
Make a best-laid plan.
Too tired. Too stressed. Too full. Figure out your biggest barriers to sex and plan around them. "When my husband and I go on a date, we have all these expectations that it's going to end in a night of passion," says Jolie Stavnicky, 39, a stay-at-home mom in Bainbridge, Ohio. "But after a big steak dinner with drinks, followed by bowls of ice cream, we both end up bloated on the couch in a food coma. The next morning we joke about how we had good intentions." Sound familiar? Instead of a dinner date, schedule a sex date. The anticipation of intimacy later will help turn you on. Text your partner flirty messages throughout the day. Or plan a tryst for the morning, when the kids are still sleeping and your stomach is empty.
Put mind over mojo.
During foreplay, focus on the pleasurable sensations instead of wondering what you look like or what your partner is thinking about your body. "Stay in the moment as opposed to going off and being a spectator," Meston says. When your mind strays, silently repeat a mantra, such as "This is hot." It can boost sexual satisfaction.
Live Sexily Ever After
Michelle delivered her second daughter last May and vowed she wouldn't let her weight get in the way of her love life again. With a combination of cardio, weight lifting, and eating "clean" by cutting out fried and sugary processed foods, she shed the nearly 70 pounds of baby weight and is raring to go. "I pull out sexy lingerie, high heels, and toys," she says. "I initiate sex more than my husband does now!"When His Fat Is a Turnoff
You're working your butt off to stay fit. Meanwhile your guy's belly is getting softer by the beer. Not loving his love handles? Invite him to join you at the gym or on a walk. Better yet, plan fun, active dates like ice-skating or snowboarding. Doing new activities together amps up attraction and will invigorate your relationship, according to research.
Certain medical conditions, from thyroid to immune-system disorders, can sap your sexual energy. One of the biggest culprits is depression. Do things that used to bring you great joy -- like your orgasm -- feel dull? Ask your doctor about therapy.Your Rx
Meds, especially birth control and antidepressants, can affect hormone balance and lubrication. Exercise may help override these side effects, so stay active.Your Schedule
When you're too busy or tired for sex, at least touch your partner while you're sleeping; spooning or sleeping back-to-back fosters sexual intimacy.Your Pet
Invest in a crate so that Fido or Fluffy doesn't sleep in your bed, especially between the two of you.Your Pregame Routine
Skip watching America's Next Top Model or reading fashion magazines before you turn in. Looking at superskinny women will subconsciously kill your arousal.His Hygiene
Suggest a steamy shower together to get into sexy mode.Too Many Cocktails
Alcohol is a depressant, and it can throw hormone levels out of whack. Cut yourself off after one drink.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2012.