Exercise and Fertility (2 of 4): Does Exercise Increase Men’s Sperm Count?

Key Takeaways:

  • Men may see an increase in their sperm count in just 6 months by increasing their frequency of exercise to 3-5x per week.

  • A 2016 study examined changes in the sperm of men in four groups of varying types of exercise. The men who committed to moderate and consistent forms of training demonstrated the most significant improvements in sperm shape, concentration and volume, beating out men who participated in high intensity exercise or no exercise at all.

  • Findings around exercise and fertility rates still remain relatively inconclusive, but Dr. Allen Pacey, who serves on Legacy’s advisory board, states that there likely exists an optimum zone of exercise for male fertility.


 

According to a 2016 study published in the journal Reproduction, the short answer to that question is, Yes.

In fact, it takes a mere 6 months of frequent exercise for men to notice an improvement. How frequent? Anywhere from three to five times per week, said researchers, adding that the men in their study who exercised regularly and moderately boosted sperm qualities in better ways than men who engaged in trendy interval-training regimens like HIIT.

For the study, researchers from Urmia University examined 261 healthy men and split them up into four different groups: a control group that did not participate in exercise; men who followed high intensity interval training (HIIT); men using high intensity continuous training (HICT); and, men committed to moderate intensity continuous training (MICT).

Those following the MICT and HICT programs typically ran on treadmills for 30 and 60 minutes, respectively, either 3 or 4 days per week. The HIIT devotees, on the other hand, sprinted for 60 seconds on treadmills, rested for an equal duration, and then repeated that pattern between 10 and 15 times. All routines were adhered to for a period of 24 weeks.

By the numbers

At the end of the program, those using the MICT approach demonstrated the most significant improvements in sperm parameters; they also managed to hold onto those benefits for a longer period of time. When compared with control group participants, the MICT men showed a 17.1% improvement in sperm shape, a 14.1% boost in concentrated sperm, and, on average, a 21.8% increase in sperm cells.

Notably, any benefits to sperm shape, concentration, and count tended to decrease in the direction of pre-training levels once participants had stopped their assigned exercise programs for a week. Benefits to sperm motility (swimming ability) dropped to earlier levels about 30 days after ceasing exercise.

Behzad Hajizadeh Maleki, lead author of the study, said in a press release that the results indicated that exercise can prove “a simple, cheap and effective strategy for improving sperm quality in sedentary men”.

At the same time, though, he noted that the reasons why some men can’t father children goes beyond issues such as sperm count. “Male infertility problems can be complex and changing lifestyles might not solve these cases easily,” he said.

Results confirm earlier studies

The 2016 study provided a glimmer of clarity into a question that had for at least the previous 5 years been a subject of serious scrutiny. A 2015 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine compared semen parameters in men aged 18-22 who were physically active over a period of three months. The conclusion: Men who engaged in “higher moderate-to-vigorous activity and less TV watching were significantly associated with higher total sperm count and sperm concentration”.

Maleki, leader of the 2016 study, also co-authored a 2012 publication in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine that examined the relationship between oxidative stress biomarkers with sperm DNA damage in top-flight athletes as well as men who were recreationally active. Results showed that sperm from participants in the latter group “may be less susceptible to oxidative stress-induced DNA damage and hence infertility”.

And a 2012 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology compared sperm parameters among 16 physically active males and 15 who served as sedentary controls, concluding that physically active men appeared to demonstrate “a healthier semen production”.

The way forward

Maleki and his team plan to go further with their findings by looking at whether keeping to an exercise regimen winds up producing positive effects not just for sperm quality, but for actual fertility.

Dr. Allen Pacey, professor of andrology at the University of Sheffield and spokesman for the British Fertility Society, was quoted by BBC News as saying, "We have a very poor understanding of how physical exercise affects male fertility and sperm quality, but it is a question commonly asked by men wishing to improve their chances of having a child."

Pacey, who also serves as a member of Legacy’s advisory board, went on to note that while there likely exists an optimum zone of exercise for male fertility, it is wise to check with one’s doctor before embarking on a routine that’s overly strenuous.

In addition, men should also consider preserving their assets before and, if research continues to indicate promising results, after embarking on an exercise regimen.