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IU Health & Wellness

Research and insights from Indiana University

Sept. 29, 2009

IU Health and Wellness for September discusses the following topics:

Studies examine how living conditions impact reproductive health
Study examines women's attitudes about female genitals, ease of orgasms and sexual health behaviors
Workout tips for runners driven indoors by allergies or weather

Vitzthum image

Photo by Aaron Bernstein

Print-Quality Photo

Living conditions and reproductive health. When costs outweigh benefits, successful pregnancies are less likely to occur. Life is all about tradeoffs and recently published research by Virginia J. Vitzthum, a senior scientist at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, and professor in the IU College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Anthropology, has shown that during periods of intense labor and low food intake, rates of early pregnancy loss can more than double. The findings, reported recently in the American Journal of Human Biology, are the first to show seasonality of early pregnancy loss in a non-industrialized population -- in this case rural Bolivian women -- and the first to demonstrate a relationship between economic activities and early pregnancy loss. Vitzthum's research challenges the past belief that nearly all early pregnancy losses are caused by genetic defects in the embryo. Genetic defects wouldn't change with the seasons, so Vitzthum's findings show that environmental factors must also play a major role in early pregnancy losses. "This finding applies to U.S. moms just as much as Bolivians, and it applies to psychosocial resources just as much as food supply," Vitzthum said. "As well as healthy food, pregnant women also need good working conditions and adequate social support from family, friends and workplace to keep their risks of early pregnancy losses low."

  • Men are affected, too. In a second research paper, also published in the American Journal of Human Biology, Vitzthum reports a similar relationship between reproductive fitness and external influences. "This paper also concerns the effects of limited resources, this time on male physiology," she said. "In the worst part of the year, late winter, testosterone levels are suppressed. This is particularly interesting because it had been thought that males were much less sensitive, if at all, to environmental conditions because they don't need a lot of energy for a pregnancy. The effects of poor resources on males appear to be more subtle but can still be important for their own health and well being."

Vitzthum's work has long been at the crossroads of biology and culture, focusing on how human reproductive functioning has evolved in response to different environmental conditions. "Until recently, it was assumed that women everywhere had similar reproductive biology," she said. "We now know that women vary tremendously, and these differences affect women's health."

To speak with Vizthum or for additional assistance, contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-856-1896 or Top

Journal citations: "Seasonal Modulation of Reproductive Effort During Early Pregnancy in Humans," American Journal of Human Biology, 2009 Jul-Aug;21(4):548-58; "Seasonal and Circadian Variation in Salivary Testosterone in Rural Bolivian Men," American Journal of Human Biology, published online inApril, 2009.

Orgasms, sexual health and attitudes about female genitals. An Indiana University study published in the September issue of the International Journal of Sexual Health found that women who feel more positively about women's genitals find it easier to orgasm and are more likely to engage in sexual health promoting behaviors, such as having regular gynecological exams or performing vulvar self-examinations. "These are important findings about body image," said Debby Herbenick, associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. "Our culture often portrays women's genitals as dirty and in need of cleaning and grooming. Some women may have had greater exposure to such negative messages or may be more susceptible to their impact." Herbenick's study created a scale for measuring men's and women's attitudes toward women's genitals. Such a scale, she wrote in the study, could be useful in sex therapy, in medical settings to help better understand decision-making that goes into gynecological care and treatment, and in health education settings involving women and their sexual health. The study also found that men had more positive attitudes about women's genitals than women. "Women are often more critical about their own bodies -- and other women's bodies -- than men are," Herbenick said. "What we found in this study is that men generally feel positive about a variety of aspects of women's genitals including how they look, smell, taste and feel."

Herbenick, also a sexual health educator for The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, offers the following suggestions regarding the findings:

  • Body image. Parents might consider how they can help their daughters to feel more positively about their bodies, such as by teaching them accurate names for their body parts, including their genitals (e.g., "vulva" rather than "down there") and responding in supportive ways to their self-exploration. "Rather than saying, 'don't touch down there -- it's dirty,' parents might let their children know that it's OK for them to touch their genitals, but in private spaces such as their own bedroom or the bathroom," Herbenick said.
  • Advertisements and marketing. Health educators might consider ways that they can teach women and men about their bodies in positive, sex-positive ways by openly discussing how some products or marketing campaigns make people feel about their bodies.

The survey component of the study involved 362 women and 241 men, most of whom were white/Caucasian and between the ages of 18 and 23. "Our study builds on previous research that demonstrates that the mind and body are highly connected in regard to sex," said Herbenick. "When women feel more positively about female genitals, they likely feel more relaxed in their own skin, more able to let go and thus more likely to experience pleasure and orgasm."

The study was supported by The Joseph Miller Foundation. For a copy of the study, visit

Herbenick can be reached at 812-855-0364 or Top

Journal citation: "The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Attitudes Toward Women's Genitals," International Journal of Sexual Health, 21:153-166, 2009.

What to do when allergies, weather, drive runners indoors. Sometimes allergies and inclement weather can drive even the most devoted outdoor runners to the "dreaded" treadmill, indoor track or even the pool. While training indoors isn't the same as being outdoors, if done right, it can be just as effective, says Andy Fry, fitness expert at Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. "I myself suffer from allergies," he said. "When it gets real bad I stay indoors."

Fry offers these indoor workout tips for runners:

  • Put the treadmill between 0.5 and 1 percent incline for your base. This helps to simulate air and wind that runners face outdoors.
  • Change the elevation up and down frequently. This helps runners who are used to hills because running on a flat treadmill induces a gait that never changes.
  • Vary running speeds on the treadmill. This helps decrease the doldrums of treadmill running and helps the runner stay motivated and focused.
  • Stay hydrated while exercising indoors. Running outdoors allows for air and wind to circulate around your body which helps to keep you cool. Unless there is a fan nearby, you don't have that benefit inside.
  • Aqua jogging. This is a good cardiovascular exercise that mimics running form and should be performed for 20 minutes or more.
  • Running on an indoor track. It is important to alternate the running direction each day the runner exercises to avoid developing strength imbalances in the hips and legs. Fry said running back-to-back days is best because facilities usually change the direction runners and walkers travel on tracks each day.
  • Stairs or elliptical machines. This is also a great way to provide cardiovascular benefits to the body aside from traditional running.

For runners willing to brave the pollen, ragweed, mold and other environmental allergens, Fry offers these tips:

  • Check the pollen count in your area. Local and national pollen levels can be checked at the following site: This will help the runner avoid highly allergy-prone areas.
  • Frequently wash exercise clothes. The same exercise clothes should not be worn from day to day due to their tendency to accumulate pollen. It is important to shower directly after exercising because research shows that an hour after having contact with pollen is usually when the most severe allergic reactions take place.
  • Exercise during the middle of the day. The pollen count is lower during this time of day.
  • Run after it rains. The water washes pollen away.
  • Practice good breathing. Nasal passages filter pollen out, which is why it is good to maintain the old running tip, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Fry is assistant director for fitness and wellness at the School of HPER's Division of Campus Recreational Sports. He can be reached at 812-855-9653 or Top


For additional assistance, contact Tracy James, 812-855-0084 and, or Steve Chaplin, 812-856-1896 or, in University Communications.