You probably know that male fertility issues, also known as “male-factor” infertility, contribute to at least 30% of diagnosed infertility cases. But did you know that there are some simple lifestyle changes you or your partner can make to significantly improve sperm health and fertility? Here, we’ll give you an overview of sperm health and some evidence-backed tips from the medical advisory team at Legacy, an at-home sperm testing and freezing kit.

Understanding male fertility

Male fertility can be measured with a few metrics:

  • Sperm count/concentration: The total number of sperm (sperm count) and/or how closely packed the sperm are within the semen (sperm concentration). This metric is important because only about 1 in a million sperm will make it all the way through the female reproductive system to the egg—so it’s better to start with a higher number.

  • Sperm motility: How well the sperm are “swimming.” Sperm that are moving in large circles or straight lines are good (that’s called progressive motility), while sperm that aren’t moving may be immotile or perhaps even dead. Motility is important because this movement is what propels the sperm toward the egg and allows it to fertilize.

  • Sperm morphology: The shape, size, and structure of the sperm. Sperm should comprise a few pieces: the head, which contains the nucleus where genetic material is carried; a midpiece; and a tail, which propels the sperm forward and helps it breach the egg. Because this anatomy is key to the sperm’s movement and proper fertilization, sperm with abnormal morphology may be less likely to create a healthy pregnancy.

  • DNA fragmentation: Sperm contain 23 chromosomes, half of the genetic material for the potential child (which combines with the 23 chromosomes of the egg to create an embryo). Sometimes, the DNA within the sperm can become broken or separated, an issue known as DNA fragmentation that can make a healthy pregnancy less likely.

  • Semen factors: Though less crucial to fertility than sperm health, semen factors—such as low volume, abnormal pH, or the presence of anti-sperm antibodies—can also impact male fertility, and can compound sperm health issues.

Testing your sperm health

The best way to understand how to improve your sperm health is first to test it. The cornerstone of male fertility testing is the semen analysis. During this non-invasive test, a doctor or laboratory scientist examines a semen sample, typically produced via masturbation, under a high-powered microscope to evaluate sperm count/concentration, motility, morphology, and semen factors. (DNA fragmentation can be tested in a separate analysis.)

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This type of test used to be performed only at a doctor’s office, but companies like Legacy are making it easier and more comfortable by offering at-home sperm testing kits that allow you to collect your sample in the privacy of your home, mail it to the laboratory, and receive clinic-level results in just a few days. Order your test kit.

Improving your sperm health

There are a few ways to improve your sperm count, motility, morphology, and genetic health on your own, without medical intervention.

Here are our top three tips for boosting male fertility through lifestyle changes:

Quit smoking
The impact of cigarette smoking on fertility is one of the most well-supported conclusions in fertility science. In 20 different studies of tobacco use, researchers found that smoking was associated with significantly reduced sperm count and motility; additionally, experts believe that smoking damages the genetic health of sperm. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine estimates that infertility rates among smokers (both male and female) are twice as high as among non-smokers.

If you quit smoking, your sperm health can improve fairly quickly. Research shows that former smokers who quit more than six months ago have similar semen parameters to non-smokers.

Optimize your diet
Unfortunately, the so-called “Western” diet—higher in fried foods, refined grains, added sugars, and red meat—is associated with lower sperm counts and concentration and reduced sperm motility and normal morphology, and diets high in processed meats, such as hot dogs and cold cuts, are associated with lower sperm morphology.

On the other hand, a diet high in fish, lean poultry, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains has been shown by multiple studies to be associated with improved sperm health. The “Mediterranean diet,” modeled on what’s traditionally eaten in Italy and Greece (primarily fruits and vegetables, seafood, healthy fats, and whole grains) is one example of a diet that has the potential to improve sperm health, according to several studies.

The following nutrients are vital for sperm health:

  • Folate (folic acid), found in green vegetables, legumes, and liver

  • Omega-3 fatty acids, found in seafood and nuts/seeds

  • Selenium, found in Brazil nuts, seafood, and meat

  • Vitamin C, found in many fruits and vegetables

  • Vitamin E, found in plant oils and nuts/seeds

  • Zinc, found in oysters, shellfish, meat, and beans

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While it’s best to get these nutrients you need from your diet, multivitamins can help fill in any gaps.

You also might consider taking male fertility supplements or “prenatal vitamins” for men, with ingredients that have been associated with improved sperm health and production:

  • Ashwagandha, which may improve testosterone levels, sperm count, and sperm motility

  • CoQ10, which has been shown to increase sperm concentration, motility, and fertilization rates

  • D-aspartic acid (D-AA), which regulates testosterone release and may improve sperm concentration and motility

  • Fenugreek, which improves testosterone levels and may benefit semen parameters and boost libido

  • Maca root powder, an aphrodisiac associated with increased sperm concentration and motility

  • Tribulus terrestris, which may enhance libido along with sperm count, motility, and morphology

Learn more in Legacy’s Guide to Male Fertility Supplements.

Exercise moderately, but regularly

Regular exercise has been strongly correlated with better fertility. In one study, men who were more physically active had better sperm motility; in another, physically active men had improved sperm motility and morphology as well as healthier hormone profiles for fertility than their more sedentary counterparts.

Studies show that embarking on a regular exercise regimen can improve sperm health in just a few months, and it doesn’t need to be intense. In fact, one study of different exercise regimens (moderate-intensity) continuous training, high-intensity continuous training, and high-intensity interval training) found that—while all of the regimens had positive effects on fertility—the best exercise method for fertility was actually moderate-intensity continuous training.

On the other hand, very intense exercise or exercise that puts pressure on the testicles (such as long-distance cycling) may have a negative impact on male fertility, according to research. So, you don’t need to become a marathoner or an Iron Man—adopting the simple habit of walking or jogging 3–6 days a week can significantly improve your sperm health.

Learn more in Legacy’s Guide to Sperm Improvement.