As if temperatures weren't torrid enough, this summer has everyone and their mother, literally, reading Fifty Shades of Grey. (The trilogy of erotic fiction has proved particularly popular among middle-aged women.) Making matters sultrier, people may be reading the prurient paperbacks in as little clothing as possible since it's so freaking hot out. This observation leads us to a singular steamy conclusion: There's a lot of sex on the brain these days. Whether there's sex anywhere else is another matter.
And yet, sexual health is critical to overall health. Among its many benefits, sex can boost immunity, circulation, mood, bonding—and even burn calories, says Sheryl Kingsberg, professor of reproductive biology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and chief of the behavioral medicine division in the obstetrics and gynecology department at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
With all that in mind, take a cue from the heat index to get your own fires burning.
Summer, in fact, provides a perfect opportunity for revving up romance. This is when we tend to unwind and get away, seeking the promise of discovery in summer vacation. Plus, more daylight hours mixed with warm weather means we're outdoors more often.
"Nature definitely calms us down, centers us, and allows for that sensual energy to come through," says sex and relationship expert Laura Berman, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Time spent outdoors can also remove us from routines, including the potential traps of technology.
To reconnect, couples must disconnect from the daily grind, experts say. And often, that means switching off the gadgets. Let's face it—if you're aiming to focus on anything, let alone each other, it helps to remove distractions. Berman recommends at least 30 minutes a day of "tech-free time." "Most couples don't talk to each other more than 15 minutes a week about anything other than the logistics of their lives…so turning off the technology and getting out of the house are two great places to start."
Clearly, making time for reconnecting is key. But so is finding new ways of relating, particularly as time goes on. While the novelty and mystery of new relationships carry built-in excitement, an established couple can easily take each other for granted, Kingsberg says.
In other words, there are no real shortcuts here. If you and your partner want a great physical connection, work on your emotional one.
Just ask Dr. Ruth. The legendary sex therapist, who turned 84 last month, says what's most important is that "the relationship has to be a good one." That means interesting conversation, she says, and "communicating in a way that is meaningful."
Toward that end, relationships, like everything else in life, require refreshing. Consider these ways to turn up the heat in your bedroom (or wherever):
Mix it up, especially if you're a longtime couple.
"Every relationship goes through ebbs and flows, and we all get stuck in ruts," Berman says. "If you just do something adventurous and out of your comfort zone together, that will often stimulate desire because of the novelty." She advises taking a new class together, going on a roller coaster ride, or experimenting with a sex toy. Berman credits Fifty Shades of Grey with normalizing sexual aids and devices. "You can go online to drugstore.com, and no one will know you're not getting your shampoo in the mail," she says. Plus, "you and your partner can shop together, and it's a great way to learn about things you both want to try."
Rose Hartzell, a sex therapist with San Diego Sexual Medicine, a research and patient care center at Alvarado Hospital, compares novelty in a long-term relationship to ordering a new item at your favorite restaurant. "Being open-minded in the bedroom allows you to eat at the restaurant you love and experience wonderful new dishes."
As Kingsberg says, "Personalize the personal." Sexual desire and abilities shift with age, gender, and myriad other variables. For postmenopausal women, who may be prone to hot flashes, "setting the mood is also setting the thermostat," Kingsberg says. Dr. Ruth advises older couples to have sex in the morning "when the testosterone level is highest." Testosterone levels lower with age and can lead older men to experience diminished sex drive and erectile dysfunction.