The penis is the most temperamental part of a man’s body. It tends to get too excited for its own good. It responds poorly to illicit substances. It can show up in a big way at inopportune times, while retreating from duty when you need it most. As far as sources of pleasure go, it can be pretty damn frustrating.
Most men know their penis is not likely to hit a grand slam every time it steps to the plate. According to a study published in the American Journal of Medicine, 85 percent of men between the ages of 20 and 39 say they “always” or “almost always” can get and maintain an erection, which means 15 percent of men in the prime of their life have a hard time getting hard at least occasionally. The same study found that of men between the ages of 40-59, only 20 percent said they could get a healthy enough erection for sex most of the time. In other words, solid wood is far from a foregone conclusion.
Though you may never be able to predict how your penis will behave with 100 percent accuracy, there are steps you can take to make sure that when it comes time to perform, your erections are as healthy and strong as they can be.
1. Hit the gym
Cardio. Cardio. Cardio.
According to Ryan Berglund, M.D., a urologist at the Cleveland Clinic, bloodflow is the key to a healthy erection, and there’s nothing that encourages bloodflow like aerobic exercise. Not only does it keep you in shape, it builds the body’s nitric oxide, which helps maintain erections.
While running is great, stay off the bike if you can help it. “Endurance cyclists who spend a long time on their bike seats may have more trouble with ED,” says Erin Michos, M.D., an associate professor of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Those tight shorts can’t help, either.
2. Put the cigarettes away
In a study conducted at the University of Kentucky, researchers found that when asked to rate their sex lives on a scale of 1 to 10, men who smoked averaged about a 5, while nonsmokers rated theirs a 9.
One reason is that smoking is a known cause of impotence, and there’s some evidence that smoking affects erection strength—and size. In one study, researchers found that smokers’ penises are smaller than those belonging to nonsmokers.
“In addition to damaging blood vessels, smoking may cause damage to penile tissue itself, making it less elastic and preventing it from stretching,” says Irwin Goldstein, M.D., a urologist at the Boston University medical center.
We have yet to hear a better reason to quit.
3. But keep a pot of coffee on
Though few things are worse for your erection than a cigarette habit, coffee can actually help you out below the belt. A study by the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston found that men who consumed the caffeine equivalent of 2-3 cups of coffee per day were less likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction than those who preferred to wake up with caffeine-free beverages.
4. Get a vasectomy
If you’re finished producing offspring (or you’re sure you don’t want kids), consider investing in permanent renovations at the sperm factory.
“The risk of a contraceptive failure can be a big source of anxiety for some men, especially those who’ve had a birth-control disaster—or a scare—in the past,” says Karen Donahey, Ph.D., director of the sex- and marital-therapy program at Northwestern University.
That anxiety can, in turn, lead to erection problems—and cause the same vicious circle that makes performance anxiety such a mood killer.
But if there’s no sperm, the risk of pregnancy is beyond minuscule: A properly performed vasectomy has an effectiveness rate of 99.9 percent. And at $1,500, it’s a bargain compared with college tuition.
5. Stay faithful
It’s common for men who start having affairs to stop having erections. So common, in fact, that doctors who treat erectile dysfunction often ask their patients if they’re getting any action on the side.
Unless your wife knows about, approves of, and participates in your new sex life—in which case, we’d like to meet her—you’re bound to feel at least a little guilty about it when you’re with her. Guilt can turn to anxiety, and that can kill an erection.
6. Lose your gut
Besides taking up residency at a monastery, having diabetes is the quickest route to a lifetime of celibacy.
In fact, more than 50 percent of all men with diabetes are impotent. The disease hits the penis with a double whammy. It accelerates the process of arterial disease, and it slows the transmission of stimuli along nerves throughout your body. And, trust us, a numb penis is not a happy penis.
Staying trim is the best way to avoid diabetes. If it’s too late for that, be vigilant in checking your blood sugar (talk to your doctor about the best methods).
Men who are sloppy about controlling their levels have 70 percent more erection problems than those who stay on top of it, according to a recent Italian study.
7. Take it easy when you’re thrusting
One vigorously misplaced thrust is all it takes to rupture the corposa cavernosa, the elongated “erectile chambers” that run the length of your penis.
Don’t believe us? Try aiming your erect penis at the trunk of a tree—it’s roughly the same density as your partner’s pubic bone.
A complete rupture will require surgery within 24 hours to stanch internal bleeding and reduce the risk of permanent damage. A partial tear isn’t as serious, but it may cause problems later on. As the linings of the corposa heal over with scar tissue, they lose their elasticity—leading to curvature, pain, and eventually impotence.
By some estimates, more than a third of impotent men have a history of “penile trauma.”
To protect yourself, be careful when she’s on top. That’s the position most likely to cause damage.
8. Skip the taxi
Start walking. In one recent study, researchers found that men who walk just 2 miles a day had half the rate of erection problems of more sedentary men, says Dr. Goldstein. (Twenty minutes of jogging or 30 minutes of weight training will work, too.)
Deposits that clog or stiffen penile arteries can also wilt erections. “Guys tend to think of their arteries as simple pipes that can become clogged, but there’s a lot more going on than that,” says Laurence Levine, M.D., a urologist at Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian Medical Center. “The linings of those blood vessels are very biologically active areas where chemicals are being made and released into the bloodstream.”
The more you exercise, the healthier, cleaner, and more flexible those linings become.
9. Yawn a lot
As far as your body’s concerned, yawning and getting an erection are practically the same thing.
They’re both controlled by a chemical called nitric oxide. Released in the brain, it can either travel to the neurons that control mouth opening and breathing, or go down the spinal cord to the blood vessels that feed the penis. Sometimes it does both (that’s why a big yawn can cause a tremor down under).
We don’t recommend foreplay with your mouth hanging open. But allowing yourself to yawn now and then throughout the day may help prime the neurochemical pathways that lead to good, sturdy erections.
10. Get plenty of sleep
Your penis needs as much shut-eye as it can get. Every night while you sleep, you have between three and five hour-long erections. You probably noticed this phenomenon the last time you had to pee at 4 a.m.
Those erections are not there just to make life interesting for your bedmate. They work to recharge your penis—keeping it well nourished with oxygenated blood.
“Theoretically, the more nocturnal erections you have, the more flexible your erectile tissue will become. And that may help keep erections strong as the years wear on,” explains Dr. Goldstein.