Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 11, October 15, 2008


Predictors of Sexual Satisfaction:
The Role of Body Image and Fitness

Corresponding Author:
Tina M. Penhollow, PhD, CHES
Assistant Professor
Department of Exercise Science and Health Promotion, Florida Atlantic University
2919 College Avenue , ES Building, Office 286, Davie, Florida 33314-2614
E-mail: tpenholl at fau.edu
Phone: 954.236.1262
Fax: 954.236.1259


Michael Young, PhD, FAAHB, FSSSS
Interim Associate Dean for Research, College of Health and Social Services
New Mexico State University, Las Cruces , NM 88011
E-mail: myoung at nmsu.edu
Phone: 575-646-7475



A satisfying sex life is an important element of overall health and quality of life. The media plays an important role in shaping adolescents’ physical appearance ideals and promoting a “perfect body” to the young as a means to achieve sexual success. The purpose of the study was to determine if a set of body image and fitness variables could be identified that would account for a significant amount of variation in sexual satisfaction.

Data were collected from a convenience sample of undergraduate students. Results indicated that body image and fitness variables were significant predictors of sexual satisfaction. These findings may have implications for those working to help individuals and couples enhance the quality of their sexual relationships.



Sexuality is an integral part of human existence and plays an important role in sustaining and improving quality of life and wellness for a large proportion of the population. A satisfying sex life is a critical element of overall health and happiness for many individuals, as sexuality plays a considerable role in intimate relationships and is an important aspect of overall emotional and physical health (Bridges, Lease, & Ellison, 2004 ). The National Commission on Adolescent Health states that a major developmental task of young adulthood is to achieve a healthy sense of sexuality, which includes positive feelings toward sexuality (sexual satisfaction) and encouraging mature, consensual relationships, while at the same time developing healthy sexual decision-making (Auslander, Rosenthal, Fortenberry, Biro, Bernstein, & Zimet, 2007; Haffner, 1995). Research exists on young adult sexual behaviors, however, a paucity of research has been conducted relative to sexual satisfaction within these sexual relationships.

Sexual satisfaction is defined as a multidimensional experience involving thoughts, feelings, personal and socio-cultural attitudes and beliefs, combined with biological factors (Gil, 2007). The sense of enjoyment with one's sexual life varies given that sexual satisfaction may be related to prior sexual experiences, current expectations, and future intentions. The literature reveals that the strongest predictors of sexual satisfaction include overall relationship satisfaction (Byers, Demmon, & Lawrance, 1998; Sprecher, 2002) , commitment, stability (Perrone & Worthington, 2001), marital quality (Young, Denny, Luquis, & Young, 1998; Young, Denny, Young, & Luquis, 2000), partner initiation, and communication (Bridges et al., 2004).

An area of study previously neglected in the research literature is the relationship between sexual satisfaction and body image for both males and females. Body image is defined as a multidimensional construct of the self, consisting of how individuals think, feel, and behave relative to their own physical attributes (Gil, 2007). In modern society, the body is considered a representation of oneself, and thus appearance allows for individual social meaning, such as young or old, ugly or beautiful. A person’s body image is constructed throughout one’s lifetime through interactions with processes taking place within one’s own body and the outside world (Haavio-Mannila & Purhonen, 2001). Body image is created by society and determined by values and socio-cultural norms. The media plays an important role in shaping young adults’ physical appearance ideals and promoting a “perfect body” to the young as a means to achieve sexual success.

Previous research has linked body image attitudes to self-esteem, interpersonal confidence, eating and exercise behaviors, grooming activities, sexual behaviors and experiences, and emotional stability (Auslander et al., 2007; Cash & Fleming, 2002; Russell, 2002; Weaver & Byers, 2006; Wiederman, 2000). A negative body image impacts an individual’s entire sense of self and one’s global self-evaluation. A number of studies have identified a negative relationship between body dissatisfaction and self-concept (Tiggemann & Lynch, 2001; Tiggemann & Williamson, 2000; Webster & Tiggemann, 2003). Individuals with higher body satisfaction have more frequent sexual experiences, engage in a wider range of sexual activities, feel more sexually desirable, and report fewer sexual difficulties than those with lower body satisfaction (Weaver & Byers, 2006). An investigation by Leopold (2003) revealed body image self-consciousness was a significant determinant of satisfaction with one’s sex life among women. Those with a negative body image reported lower sexual satisfaction scores compared with women who reported a positive body image. Wiederman (2000) found that greater levels of body image self-consciousness during sexual intimacy were associated with lower sexual self-esteem and assertiveness, greater sexual avoidance and anxiety, and more restricted sexual experience among college women. A recent investigation by Holt and Lyness (2007) revealed a statistically significant positive relationship between body image and sexual satisfaction for both male and female college students. No significant differences were identified between males versus females, which supports the idea that body image concerns are not strictly a female problem.

Previous research on body image has predominantly focused on female participants, however, cultural ideals have been shown to shape individual body image among men as well. It has been suggested that body dissatisfaction in males is associated with feeling underweight rather than overweight (Blouin & Goldfield, 1995). For example, low self-esteem, depression, and overall body dissatisfaction have been shown to occur in males who are underweight. This relatively recent behavior pattern has been referred to as the “Adonis complex of attractiveness” as a result of increased efforts among males to build muscle and stay lean (Pope, Phillips, & Olivardia, 2000). Agliata and Tantleff-Dunn (2004) indicated men exposed to advertisements which conveyed an ideal image of attractiveness and muscularity became significantly more depressed and had higher levels of muscle dissatisfaction compared to those exposed to neutral ads. It has been reported, similar to the standards set for women, the ideal male body of the new millennium is increasingly unattainable (Pope et al., 2000; Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, & Ahrens, 1992).

It has been well established that an active lifestyle decreases the risk of chronic diseases, however, exercise may also have implications for enhancing sexual health. An earlier investigation by Frauman (1982) found increased time spent participating in physical activity was significantly associated with a higher reported frequency of sexual behavior and frequency of desired sexual activity among college students. Penhollow and Young (2004) found college students who exercised frequently and reported themselves as physically fit were significantly more likely to rate themselves higher with regard to sexual performance and sexual desirability, as compared to those who exercised less and reported themselves as less fit. Kolotkin, Binks, Crosby, Ostbye, Gress, and Adams (2006) revealed that obesity was associated with lack of enjoyment of sexual activity, lack of sexual desire, difficulties with sexual performance, and avoidance of sexual encounters. A recent investigation by Huang, Lee, and Chang (2007) found that exercise participation significantly impacted quality of life, in terms of physical health improvement, psychological health improvement, and sexual satisfaction. Thus, prior research supports the notion that engagement in physical activity produces benefits beyond physical health and impacts psychological sexual health variables as well.

Links between sexual satisfaction and both body image and fitness have been infrequently studied, particularly among both college aged males and females. Much of the existing literature on sexual health among adolescent and college-age populations centers on sexual intercourse and the potential negative outcomes of sexual behaviors (Auslander et al., 2007; Tolman & Diamond, 2001). Researching the impact of body image and fitness relative to sexual satisfaction may lead to the development of effective interventions for those presented with low sexual satisfaction issues. The purpose of this study was to determine if a set of body image and fitness variables could be identified that would account for a significant amount of variation in sexual satisfaction.



A cross-sectional research design was employed to collect data from a convenience sample of undergraduate students enrolled in health science courses at a southeastern university. Participants voluntarily completed a questionnaire during normally scheduled class times. The total sample consisted of N = 408 participants, with 290 females (71%) and 118 males (29%). The majority of the participants were White (84%), Blacks accounted for 11%, and the remaining 5% included Asian, American Indian/Pacific Islander, and other ethnicities.


The testing instrument developed for use in the study was a questionnaire which included demographic variables, items used to assess sexual behavior, frequency of exercise, and perceived physical fitness, as well as a number of subscales. Following are selective measurements included in the questionnaire.

Sexual Satisfaction

An 11-item modified Derogatis Sexual Satisfaction Scale (Young et al., 1998) was included to measure sexual satisfaction. Questions measuring sexual satisfaction included “I am satisfied with my sexual partners,” “I have satisfying orgasms,” “I have good communication with my partner about sex,” “I am satisfied with my variety of sexual positions and activities,” “I am pleased with my frequency of sexual activity,” “I am pleased with my intensity of sexual activity,” “My partner makes me feel sexually desirable,” “I am sexually attracted to my sexual partner,” and “My partner makes it clear I provide him/her with sexual pleasure.” Potential responses for each item ranged from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (4).

Body Image Self-Consciousness

A 13-item body image self-consciousness scale (Wiederman, 2000) was included in testing instrument. Questions measuring body image self-consciousness included “While having sex I am (would be) concerned that my hips and thighs would flatten out and appear larger than they actually are,” “I would feel very nervous if a partner were to explore my body before or after having sex,” “The idea of having sex without any covers over my body causes me a nxiety,” “During sexual activity, I am (would be) concerned about how my body looks to my partner,” “The worst part of having sex is (would be) being nude in front of another person,” “If a partner were to put a hand on my buttocks I would think my partner can feel my fat,” “During sexual activity it is (would be) difficult not to think of how unattractive my body is,” “During sex I (would) prefer to be on the bottom so that my stomach appears flat,” “I (would) feel very uncomfortable walking around the bedroom, in front of my partner, completely nude,” “The first time I have sex with a new partner, I (would) worry that my partner will get turned off by seeing my body without clothes,” “If a partner were to put an arm around my waist, I would think he/she can tell how fat I am,” “I (would) prefer having sex with my partner on top so that my partner is less likely to see my body,” and “I (would) have a difficult time taking a shower or bath with a partner.” Potential responses for each item ranged from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (4).

Body Image

A 20-item body image scale examining satisfaction with body parts or processes (Franzoi & Shields, 1984) was included in the questionnaire. The following body parts or process were explored: face, eyes, nose, ears, chin, lower torso (buttocks, hips, thighs, legs), mid torso (waist, appearance of stomach), biceps, arms, weight, appetite, energy level, physical stamina, physical condition, muscular strength, and body build. Potential responses for each item ranged from very dissatisfied (1) to very satisfied (4).

Data Analyses

All statistical procedures were performed using Statistical Analysis Systems (SAS). Data were analyzed using descriptive analyses, which produced frequency distributions of responses on every item. Construct validity was examined by performing principal components factor analysis on all subscales included in the testing instrument. Separate factor analyses were conducted for each subscale under investigation. Multiple regression analyses determined the extent to which body image and physical fitness variables are associated with sexual satisfaction.

Separate analyses were conducted for males and females. The level of significance was set at p < .05.


Factor Analysis

Factor analysis confirmed the existence of a single sexual satisfaction construct (all items loaded at .69 or above). Two sexual body image factors were identified from the body image self-consciousness scale: (1) concerns about partner making negative judgments about their body (factor loadings were > .62); and (2) concerns about being nude in front of a partner (factor loadings were > .61). Additionally, seven factors were identified that related to satisfaction with body parts or processes: (1) weight (factor loadings were > .62); (2) problem areas (factor loadings were > .63); (3) appearance of eyes and face (factor loadings were > .52); (4) facial parts (factor loadings were > .69); (5) arms (factor loadings were > .68); (6) fitness (factor loadings were > .51); and (7) strength and build (factor loadings were > .50).

Factor loadings for the sexual satisfaction and body image self-consciousness subscales ranged from .61 to .87, indicating that the magnitudes for every construct under investigation were strong (> .60). Factor loadings for the satisfaction with body parts or processes subscale ranged from .51 to .77.


Table 1 illustrates the correlations among the independent variables and sexual satisfaction. Sexual satisfaction was significantly correlated with: concerns about being nude (r = -.50, p < .0001), concerns about partner making negative judgments about their body (r = -.38, p < .0001), fitness (r = .19, p = .0004), problem areas (r = .19, p = .0006), strength and build (r = .14, p = .0109), appearance of eyes and face (r = .14, p = .0151), and weight (r = .16, p = .0051). The independent variables with the greatest correlations were: concerns about being nude and concerns about partner making negative judgments about their body (r = .76, p < .0001); problem areas and weight (r = .73, p < .0001); and exercise frequency and perceived physical fitness (r = .66, p < .0001).

Multiple Regression

Multiple regression analyses were performed with sexual satisfaction as the dependent variable. The predictor variables were the nine factors identified through factor analysis, an exercise frequency variable, and a perceived physical fitness rating variable. Multiple regression analyses were conducted for both males and females. Results of the multiple regression were significant. The overall regression explained 46% of the variance in sexual satisfaction for women (R 2 = .4600). Three predictor variables were identified in the best-fit model for women: concerns about being nude (p < .0001), fitness (p < .02), and exercise frequency (p < .05) [R 2 = .4441]. The overall regression explained 29% of the variance in sexual satisfaction for men (R 2 = .2927). The analysis for men identified three predictor variables in the best-fit model: strength and build (p < .01), exercise frequency (p < .04), and concerns about being nude (p < .07) [R 2 = .2106] (Table 2).



The present study identified a set of physical fitness and body image variables which accounted for a statistically significant amount of variation in sexual satisfaction. For females, the three most important variables were concerns about being nude, fitness level, and exercise frequency. Together these three variables accounted for 44% of the variation in sexual satisfaction. For males, the three most important variables included strength and build, exercise frequency, and concerns about being nude. Together these three variables explained 21% of the variation in sexual satisfaction. These findings extend the previous research on body image and physical fitness by investigating the outcome variable of sexual satisfaction.

It is interesting to note that while for both males and females, two of the three variables that made a statistically significant contribution to explaining variation in sexual satisfaction were fitness/exercise related, however, the most important variable for males was strength and build, a variable that was not statistically significant for females. This finding supports prior research relative to societal ideals of male muscularity and feminine fitness (Agliata & Tantleff-Dunn, 2004; Lin & Kulik, 2002; Pope et al., 2000). This trend for males could be due to the increased visibility of male bodies in the media. Consequently, males may be vulnerable to the societal pressures toward muscularity.

Exercise frequency made a statistically significant contribution to explaining variation in sexual satisfaction for both sexes. This is consistent with the research of Penhollow & Young (2004) who found that college students who exercised frequently and reported higher levels of personal fitness were significantly more likely to rate themselves higher with regard to sexual performance and sexual desirability when compared to those who reported less frequent exercise and judged themselves to be less physically fit. Moreover, Frauman (1982) found a significant positive association between increased time spent engaging in physical activity and greater frequency of sexual behavior and desired sexual activity among college students. Similarly, higher BMI has been shown to be related to greater impairments in sexual quality of life (Kolotkin et al., 2006).

The variable, concerns about being nude, also made important contributions for both males and females in explaining variation in sexual satisfaction. Body image concerns are particularly salient during sexual activities with a partner; thus, it seems logical that people who are uncomfortable being nude in front of a partner would have a lower level of sexual satisfaction compared to those who report less discomfort. These results substantiate previous research on body image by Wiederman (2000), which demonstrated that increased body-image self-consciousness results in problematic sexual interactions. Moreover, Holt and Lyness (2007) identified a statistically significant positive correlation between body image and sexual satisfaction for both males and females.

In the best-fit model, the fitness and body image predictor variables accounted for 44% of the variation in female sexual satisfaction. This was more than double the amount of the variation in male sexual satisfaction for which these variables accounted. The investigated body image and fitness variables appear to have a greater impact on sexual satisfaction for women than for men. It has been documented that women in Western cultures are objectified to a greater degree than men. Women’s bodies are looked at, evaluated, and sexualized with greater frequency. Consequently, women are more prone to heightened awareness of how their own body appears to others, particularly men (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Wiederman, 2000). For example, Kolotkin et al. (2006) demonstrated that sexual quality of life was more negatively impacted by female weight status than by correspondent male weight status. Other studies have demonstrated that women report poorer overall body image ( Smith, Thompson, Raczynski, & Hilner, 1999), and a higher prevalence of sexual difficulty ( Laumann, Paik, & Rosen, 1999) compared to men. Female objectification may result in potential negative ramifications, including sexual dysfunction and lack of sexual satisfaction. It is important to note, however, the trend for males found in this study indicates that males, as well as females, suffer from body image concerns, and these concerns influence sexual satisfaction.


Interpretation of these results should consider the limitations of the study. Participants consisted of single, heterosexual, predominantly White undergraduate college students. Caution is warranted regarding the generalizability of the present research findings. Further, the study instrument consisted of a self-report questionnaire. There is a possibility of response bias due to false or socially desirable responses. A cross-sectional research design was employed, indicating that correlates of behavior were assessed rather than antecedents of behavior. T hese results do not demonstrate a causal relationship and multiple causal interpretations are possible. 

Moreover, the potential of multicollinearity for the multiple regressions exists due to the high degree of correlation among several independent variables. Lastly, several relevant constructs were not measured (such as frequency of sexual behavior and BMI) which could have aided in interpreting the study results.


The current findings have implications for those suffering from poor physical fitness, low body image, as well as sexual dissatisfaction. With the increasing prevalence of obesity, sexual issues are likely affecting more individuals than presently realized. Regular physical activity may be one way to address these issues. Exercise not only promotes looking good and feeling better at a physical level, but more importantly, it provides benefits at an emotional and psychological level. Although physical activity is widely regarded as beneficial to physical and psychological health, only a fraction of the population exercises regularly. Researchers report that approximately 40% to 50% of college students are physically inactive, the same percentage as in the general population. Among adolescents 15 to 18 years of age there is a decrease in physical activity and this trend continues into young adulthood, with further decreases among 18 to 29 year olds (Caspersen, Pereira, & Curran, 2000; NIH, 2006 ). Once young adults enter college, they develop lifelong attitudes and behaviors. Studies show that levels of physical activity maintained in college continue after graduation. Thus, if students are sedentary in college, they will maintain an inactive lifestyle after graduation, but if they are physically active during those years, they will continue that active lifestyle well into the future (Keating, Guan, Piñero, & Bridges, 2005). In order to maintain a healthy adult population, physical activity interventions are essential during the college years.

A more comprehensive assessment is needed to fully understand and identify factors which impact young adult sexual development and satisfaction. Incorporating body-image interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, as well as physical activity programs into the treatment of sexual dysfunctions may be of particular value for both males and females. An important implication of the present study is additional support for the notion that body image is not strictly a female problem. Treatment interventions should be tailored to the individual needs of both males and females, as their struggles seem to be different. An equal number of males want to gain/lose weight, whereas, most females want to lose weight. Additionally, women are generally more concerned with body weight, while men have greater concern for body shape (Holt & Lyness, 2007).

College is the time period when individuals define and develop their sexual self. It will be important for future researchers to examine longitudinal relationships between earlier sexual satisfaction and older adult sexual functioning. Future research should incorporate both males and females in the study of body image, physical fitness, and sexual satisfaction. Findings of the present study may provide insight for those working to help individuals sustain a more satisfying sex life and for couples to enhance the quality of their sexual relationships.


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Table 1

Correlation Matrix for Variables Hypothesized to be Associated With Sexual Satisfaction

Variables a













1 Prob













2 S & B

0.6025 ****












3 FParts

0.3668 ****

0.4376 ****











4       Fit

0.4969 ****

0.6073 ****

0.5250 ****










5 EFace

0.4617 ****

0.4916 ****

0.6035 ****

0.5162 ****









6 Arms

0.3404 ****

0.2947 ****

0.4011 ****

0.3148 ****

0.3226 ****








7 ConJudge

-0.4831 ****

-0.3590 ****

-0.2198 ****

-0.3341 ****

-0.2937 ****








8 ConNude

-0.4561 ****

-0.3030 ****

-0.1988 ****

-0.2682 ****

-0.2825 ****

-0.2040 ****

0.7578 ****






9 Wt

0.7329 ****

0.6167 ****

0.3967 ****

0.5861 ****

0.3851 ****

0.3332 ****

-0.5070 ****

-0.4015 ****





10 ExFreq

-0.2374 ****

-0.4390 ****


-0.2004 ****


-0.1770 ***

0.1846 ***

0.1451 **

-0.2340 ****




11 PerFit

-0.3551 ****

-0.5099 ****


-0.3397 ****

-0.1163 *

-0.1780 ***

0.2418 ****

0.1879 ***

0.3666 ****

0.6634 ****



12 SexSat

0.1910 ***

0.1431 *


0.1943 ***

0.1362 *


-0.3761 ****

-0.4964 ****

0.1604 **




a) Prob = Problem areas; S & B = Strength & Build; FParts = Facial parts; Fit = Fitness; EFace = Appearance of eyes and face; Arms = Arms; ConJudge = Concerns partner will make negative judgments; ConNude = Concerns about being nude; Wt = Weight; ExFreq = Exercise frequency; PerFit = Perceived physical fitness; SexSat = Sexual satisfaction

b) *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001, ****p < .0001


Table 2

Summary of Variables Predicting Sexual Satisfaction by Gender

  R 2 p-value
Set of Predictive Factors: Females (n=290) .4600 < .0001
Concerns about being nude   < .0001
Fitness   .0104
Exercise frequency   .0427
Facial parts   .1402
Appearance of eyes & face   .2951
Strength & build   .3250
Weight   .4104
Concerns partner will make negative judgments   .6665
Arms   .7340
Perceived physical fitness   .7011
Problem areas   .8385
Best-Fit Model .4441  
Concerns about being nude    
Exercise frequency    
Set of Predictive Factors: Males (n=118) .2927 .0056
Strength & build   .0042
Exercise frequency   .0397
Concerns about being nude   .0626
Appearance of eyes & face   .1414
Perceived physical fitness   .1477
Fitness   .4230
Facial parts   .5108
Concerns partner will make negative judgments   .6636
Arms   .6820
Problem areas   .7291
Weight   .9394
Best-Fit Model .2106  
Strength & build    
Exercise frequency    
Concerns about being nude