It would be great if you could just take a look at it and tell if your sperm were normal. Doesn’t work that way, of course. But it’s not that complicated to find out, either. Even if everything does appear normal and healthy on the surface, you can’t really tell whether your sperm is healthy just by looking at it. Scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider to perform a semen analysis is the only accurate way to know where your sperm stands.
“A sperm specimen needs to be collected and looked at through a microscope to evaluate if it’s healthy,” says Kaylen Silverberg, a reproductive endocrinologist at Texas Fertility Center in Austin, Texas. “That’s because the factors that indicate healthy sperm can’t be seen with the naked eye.”
So What Does Healthy Sperm Look Like?
According to Dr. Silverberg, when your doctor is checking the health of your sperm, they’re primarily looking at three factors:
- Sperm count: The number of sperm in a volume of semen
- Sperm motility: The percentage of sperm that are alive and swimming
- Sperm morphology: The percentage of sperm with a healthy size and shape.
“[An] andrologist will take a look at the sperm under the microscope to see if they are using their tail to swim in a straight line,” explains Lauren Bishop, a reproductive endocrinology and fertility specialist at the Columbia University Fertility Center. “They will also look at the head to make sure this appears oval. The tail should be long and move smoothly through the fluid.”
According to the World Health Organization, a normal semen analysis consists of a sperm concentration of about 16 million/cc semen, a motility of at least 30%, and at least 4% normally shaped sperm.
There are a number of key lifestyle factors that can affect your sperm quality. Some doctors say that changing your lifestyle can make a difference in your sperm quality as little as three months. Until you get your doctor’s read on how healthy yours are, pay attention to these traits and habits that are associated with healthy sperm.
Signs That You Have Healthy Sperm
You have a smaller waist
You don’t even have to have a six-pack—as long as you don’t have a gut, your semen is probably doing pretty well.
Researchers from the Netherlands found that men with a waist circumference of 40 inches or greater had lower sperm concentrations and counts of normal-moving sperm than guys with a more whittled waist.
The researchers aren’t exactly sure why a spare tire is bad for your swimmers. But they believe carrying too much weight—especially around your midsection—may interfere with the release of sex hormones, as well as the production and development of sperm.
You have a softer-looking face
Good news, average-looking guys! Having a masculine-looking mug might actually hurt you below the belt, according to a study in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology.
Spanish and Finnish researchers discovered that men who had faces that were rated as manly—i.e. wider and broader—tended to have poorer semen quality than more feminine-faced guys.
One possible reason: a theoretical explanation called the “trade-off hypothesis.” Simply put, men have a fixed amount of energy available to devote to reproductive resources. And that energy must be distributed to a number of different components.
“So, if a male consumes more resources on semen production, he may have fewer resources available for developing attractive secondary sexual traits, like facial masculinity,” says study author Jukka Kekäläinen, Ph.D.
You wear a mask when Covid rates shoot up
New research presented this summer at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology found that men who get Covid have lower sperm counts for longer than three months after they recover—and the sperm they do have are not strong swimmers. In fact, sperm counts can dip by as much as 20 percent. The study authors think this finding means that Covid could be capable of doing long-term damage to the male reproductive tract, even in men who get a mild case, most likely due to inflammation the virus triggers. Your smart move: prevention. Keep track of how much Covid is circulating where you are, and when the numbers climb, mask up indoors or in crowds.
You love to eat fish
If your favorite protein sources tend to be in the bacon and sausage territory, your semen might be paying the price. Harvard University researchers found that men who ate the most processed meat had significantly lower counts of normal-shaped sperm compared to those who consumed the lowest.
Fish, on the other hand, seemed to have a protective effect. Guys who ate the most fish—especially salmon and tuna—had a 65 percent greater sperm concentration than those who ate the least.
Credit fish’s omega-3s, since long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids play a part in sperm production, the researchers say. So if you’re looking to strengthen your swimmers, sub out your pepperoni topping for some anchovies.
Briefs aren’t your thing
Here’s another reason briefs might feel a bit on the constricting side: they could be suffocating your sperm, too.
A 2018 study from Harvard University’s Department of Environmental Health found that men who wore boxer shorts instead of tight-fitting underwear 25 percent higher sperm concentrations and 17 percent higher sperm counts than those who wear briefs.
“Loose-fitting underwear may result in lower scrotal temperatures compared to tight-fitting underwear, hence an improvement in semen quality,” says study author Andrew Povey, Ph.D. There’s also evidence that elevated testicular temperatures may hinder sperm production, he says. So if you want to be on the safe side, let your junk breathe.
You hit the gym regularly
Researchers from Harvard found that men who got their blood pumping by doing moderate to vigorous exercise 15 hours or more a week had a higher sperm concentration than guys who didn’t do any workouts at that intensity.
Exercise may increase the expression of antioxidants throughout your body, the researchers believe. So regular gym sessions could actually prevent free radicals from damaging sperm cells.
Your job is physical
A new Harvard study found that guys who do heavy lifting at work (literal heavy lifting, like moving weighty objects) had 46 percent higher sperm concentration and 44 percent higher total sperm count than men who have more sedentary jobs. If you don’t happen to work on a construction site or pack moving vans, add weights to your workout routine, increasing the pounds you lift gradually, to grab some of the same benefits.
Your voice isn’t super deep
Men with more of a throaty growl tend to have worse-off sperm, according to a University of Western Australian study.
Researchers found that while women rated the low-pitched voices as more masculine and attractive, those husky-voiced men had lower concentrations of sperm in their ejaculate.
Testosterone levels may be one possible explanation for this, according to study author Leigh Simmons, Ph.D. Testosterone is associated with more masculine facial features and lower voices, but too much of it might actually suppress sperm production.
You don’t eat out of plastic
Zapping last night’s lasagna in a Tupperware container is easy, but it might be wreaking havoc on your sperm.
You can thank bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical that can leach from plastics into your food when heated—and then into you.
Researchers from Denmark found than men who had the highest levels of BPA in their urine had a significantly lower percentage of motile sperm than those who had the lowest levels. (Check out which other everyday chemicals can wreak havoc in your body.)
The scientists aren’t exactly sure what’s behind the semen squeeze, but they think the BPA might affect the estrogen and androgen activity in the epididymis in the testicles. And this, they believe, can hinder the normal development of sperm.
So before you nuke your lunch, take the five seconds to transfer it from a plastic container to a glass one.
For nearly 10 years, Christa has created health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness content that’s steeped in science but engaging enough that people actually want to read it. She’s tuned in to all the latest research that people with an athletic lifestyle need to know, and prides herself on helping her readers apply it to their everyday lives.
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Runner’s World, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Women’s Health, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She is also an 11-time marathoner, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and an avid traveler.
Lisa is an internationally established health writer whose credits include Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Men’s Health, Oprah Daily, Woman’s Day, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Glamour, The Washington Post, WebMD, Medscape, The Los Angeles Times, Parade, Health, Self, Family Circle and Seventeen. She is the author of eight best-selling books, including The Essentials of Theater.