Healthy Diet and and Exercise
Optimizing a man’s fertility potential involves improving the environment for sperm production as much as possible. If a man’s general health is not good, this can have a negative impact on his sperm quality and function. A balanced diet and a good exercise regimen can help to maintain his overall health and therefore increase his chances of conceiving a child.
Regular exercise can help men maintain good cardiovascular health as well as achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Of course, men with significant health problems should check with their primary care physician before starting on an exercise regimen.
The American Heart Association’s current recommendations for physical activity include:
1) At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a day at least five days per week (for a total of 150 minutes per week) or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least three days per week (for a total of 75 minutes per week), or some combination of moderate and vigorous activity
2) Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days per week
Moderate aerobic activity includes brisk walking, biking at less than 10 miles per hour, ballroom dancing, doubles tennis, and gardening, among other things. Vigorous activity includes things like jogging or running, swimming laps, biking faster than 10 mph, jumping rope, and hiking uphill. Check out the American Heart Association’s website, heart.org/ActivityRecommendations, for lots of useful information and suggestions about increasing your activity levels.
A few specific exercise tips for men trying to optimize their fertility potential
1) Avoid tight biking-style shorts. It is common for men to wear tighter pants or underpants when they exercise, to offer more support in the scrotal area (such as running tights, biking shorts, or compression shorts). However, one of the primary ways the body regulates its temperature is for the scrotum to relax and increase its surface area, which promotes evaporation of sweat. Very tight workout pants prevent this scrotal relaxation and can result in increased scrotal temperatures, which can have a negative impact on sperm production.
2) Avoid excessive bicycle riding. The combination of the riding position, narrow biking seat, and tight biking shorts all combine to produce a negative environment for sperm quality. I recommend that patients avoid biking more than fifty miles per week if they are actively trying to conceive a child. Shorter bike rides (less than fifty miles per week) are not likely to make much of a difference, especially if you don’t wear tight biking shorts.
Can Too Much Exercise Be Bad for Sperm Production?
Studies have shown that too much exercise may be detrimental to sperm quality in some men. While individuals vary greatly, men who exercised for one hour three times a week have been shown to have better semen parameters than elite triathletes undergoing intensive daily training for Ironman-type competitions. Though changes were also seen in sperm counts and motility, the most dramatic effects were seen on sperm morphology. Men who worked out intensively had somewhat lower morphology than men whose workouts were less intensive, although sperm counts and motility were similar in the two groups. One factor to keep in mind is that the elite triathletes were putting in over two hundred miles of biking per week as part of their training, and this amount of biking by itself is known to be bad for sperm production. However, other types of intensive activity, such as running more than sixty miles a week, have also been associated with significant decreases in semen parameters in some men. Studies of marathon runners show that while most had normal semen parameters, about 10 percent were found to have elevated levels of semen abnormalities while they were training.
It’s been suggested that overtraining reduces sperm quality by increasing oxidative stress and raising scrotal temperature. Every person’s individual exercise threshold is going to be different, but if you’ve got abnormal semen parameters and are having trouble conceiving, and if you’re working out intensively, I recommend moderating your exercise routine. For more information, see the Boot Camp "Oxidative Stress" section of this website.
Multiple studies have shown an association between a healthful, well-balanced diet and improved semen parameters. There is no one set “male fertility diet”; rather, there are general guidelines about foods that have been found to be either helpful or detrimental to optimal sperm production. The goal is to make dietary changes that are sustainable. If you try to make changes that are too radical to maintain, chances are that you’re not going to stick to them, and so you won’t see any real improvements in fertility potential—plus you might stress yourself out in the process. The guidelines I present here are designed to encourage overall better dietary choices without being too strict to maintain.
Good Foods for Male Fertility
In general, aim for a well-balanced diet, with a focus on these healthful foods:
1) Fresh fruits and vegetables. Try to get at least five to six servings per day. Green leafy vegetables are an especially good natural source of beneficial folic acid. If you can find and afford organic produce, it will reduce your exposure to pesticide residues.
2) Lean protein in moderate amounts. Good choices include fish (but stay away from types that are often high in mercury, including swordfish, king mackerel, shark, and tilefish), skinless chicken and turkey, legumes (beans, lentils, peas), nuts (including nut butters) and seeds, egg whites, low-fat dairy (skim or 1 percent milk, low-fat cheeses such as cottage cheese, feta, Camembert, and ricotta), and oatmeal.
3) Complex carbohydrates. While carbs have gotten something of a bad rap lately, studies have shown that some intake of carbohydrates may be important for maintaining good sperm production. Whole, unprocessed carbohydrates provide energy, nutrients, and fiber and don’t spike your blood sugar the way highly processed carbs do. Instead of white bread and pasta, look for whole-grain types. Go for rolled or steel-cut oats instead of instant oatmeal (which is often high in sugar, too). Try different whole grains such barley, quinoa, brown rice, or wild rice. Pick sweet potatoes, corn, lima or butter beans, peas, lentils, and other types of beans instead of white potatoes. And, of course, fruits and non-starchy vegetables provide carbohydrates as well as other nutrients.
4) Unsaturated fats. These can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, and some can improve levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. Unsaturated fats come from plants and fish sources and are liquid at room temperature. Good sources of this type of fat include oily fish (such as salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, and anchovies), vegetable and seed oils (such as olive, canola, peanut, flaxseed, safflower, and sunflower), nuts (for example, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts), and seeds (including sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower).
The Bad Fats
Some fat in the diet is necessary for health, but make sure you’re eating more of the healthful types of fats mentioned above, and less of these problematic fats:
1) Saturated fats. These come largely from animal products, such as high-fat dairy products (butter, cream, ice cream, whole milk), high-fat cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, Gouda, Parmesan, Gruyere, cream cheese), fatty cuts of meat (including bacon and lard), and poultry skin. But they can also be found in some plant sources, such as palm and coconut oils. If the fat is solid at room temperature, then it’s saturated.
2) Red meat. If you eat red meat, limit your intake to about 18 ounces per week, and go for leaner cuts of beef (such as eye round, sirloin tip, top round, bottom round, and top sirloin) and pork (such as loin and tenderloin).
3) Fried foods. They often contain unhealthful fats, plus lots of calories.
4) Trans fats. Avoid these, which are vegetable oils that have undergone an industrial process to solidify them and extend their shelf life. They’ve been shown to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol—exactly the opposite of what you want. They’re often found in processed baked goods (cookies, pie crusts, cakes, pizza dough, hamburger buns), snack foods (crackers, chips, cookies, candy, prepackaged popcorn), fried foods, frozen dinners, and some types of margarine. Food producers are required by law to list trans fats on a product’s Nutrition Facts label, and you can also check the ingredients list for the words “hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated,” which tell you that the product contains trans fats.
Is Soy a Problem?
Soy products—tofu, edamame, soy sauce, soy milk, soy flour—contain phytoestrogens, substances with known estrogenic (female hormonal) activity. Several studies have shown a possible link between regular soy product consumption and decreased semen parameters. Although these findings are controversial, I recommend that men avoid regular soy intake while trying to impregnate their partner.
Sugar: It’s Not So Sweet
Simple sugars spike blood glucose levels and offer lots of calories with little nutrition. I suggest you avoid them when possible. In addition to the obvious suspects, such as sweetened drinks (sugary soda, sweetened tea, fruit juice), candy, cookies, cake, and jams and jellies, you might be surprised by the sugar content in ketchup, sauces, and dressings. Read labels and look for the various names that sugar hides under: sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose, raw (or brown or beet) sugar, molasses, evaporated cane juice, cane sugar, maple sugar or syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and turbinado sugar.
Extreme Diets for Weight Loss
Extreme diets that eliminate whole categories of foods are generally not good for fertility. The next Boot Camp section will review information on effective weight loss strategies that can also have fertility benefits.