In May of this year, Faisal Abdalla announced to his 88,000 Instagram followers that he and his partner, Louise, were expecting their second child. Great news, but nothing earth shattering. Except for Faisal and Louise it was, because for years they’d been told they would struggle to conceive, partly due to Faisal’s low sperm count – something he acknowledged on Instagram for the first time. “Yup that’s right Mr. PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) has a low sperm count!” he wrote.
Three days later, Faisal decided to explore the topic in more depth, posting again about his struggles to conceive. “I wasn’t expecting to share details about my sperm with the world this week, but here I am,” he began. “I mentioned in our pregnancy announcement about my low sperm count… I can’t be an ambassador for @menshealthuk and stay silent on such a massive men’s health issue.”
Faisal went on to explain that low sperm counts are very common among men, and especially so in the fitness industry, pointing to factors such as his muscle mass upsetting his BMI, and “Prolonged exposure to high temperatures while teaching and training, tight training shorts, large quantity of soy products consumed, lots of sitting in a saddle while training.”
“It’s all a recipe for disaster really when it comes to baby making,” he explained.
Almost 1,400 people ‘liked’ the post. Comments included handclaps, hearts, the odd ‘Amen bro’, and deeper outpourings of empathy, including one person who wrote “As someone who is struggling with fertility, thank you for using your platform to help educate your followers” and another who explained his and his partner’s struggle with unexplained secondary infertility. In short, men, and their partners, were beginning to talk about something that has long been overlooked, ignored, shrugged off, or outright denied: the difficulty even healthy men can have trying to conceive.
The Rise of Male Infertility
According to experts Fertility Family, “Infertility affects around 1 in 7 heterosexual couples in the UK. Generally, 30% of fertility problems are due to the man, 30% due to the woman and 30-40% are due to both or unknown reasons.” Meanwhile, IVI points out that infertility rates in the UK are rising, with a study of 120,000 men discovering that “the percentage of men who are at risk of needing fertility treatment has increased quite dramatically from 12.4% in 2004 to 21.3% in 2017” – possibly due to social factors like women delaying having families until they’re older, and environmental factors such as overheating through overuse of saunas, and laptops.
Faisal and Louise first decided to try for a child seven years ago, when he was 30. But their initial attempts were met with very little success. A trip to the doctors followed in which it was revealed Faisal’s sperm count was near zero, and he had very few ‘active swimmers’. “I was like ‘How the fuck is that possible, how can you have zero?’” he recalls now.
More tests followed, but none returned positive news. “Louise was devastated, it was the end of the world for her,” Faisal says. “We had body clock worries and financial worries.” But, known for his positive mental attitude, Faisal says after a few days of shock, he didn’t let the bad news sink in. “I don’t accept shit like that,” he explains.
Fitness & Fertility... It's Complicated
A fertility specialist pointed to a possible cause. “She asked me what my profession was,” Faisal recalls. “I told her I’m a fitness coach. She asked what I wore, and I told her that for the past four years I’ve been wearing tight gym-wear – leggings and shorts – for 12-16 hours a day, six days a week. She was like 'Oh, okay. The compression is not good, the heat’s not good.’ I think this combination of heat and compression was the biggest factor for why my fertility was so low.”
Faisal isn’t exaggerating his commitment to gym-wear: as well as being a Men’s Health Elite Coach, he’s also a fitness coach at Sweat-by-BXR, and online trainer at WithU Training, and an ambassador for Nocco and PhD Diet. Oh, and he’s one of the founders of, and head coach, at online training platform PMA Fitness, of which his wife, Louise is CEO. All of which has proven great for his physique, mental approach, and career. But less so for his sperm.
“I remember at school, learning why the ballsack was created to hang low, it’s to keep the sperm cool,” Faisal says. “Her assessment made complete sense to me. I’m a hot-blooded male – I radiate heat. I sometimes do two workouts a day, and I’m always training clients, I’m always active. It didn’t come as a shock to me that that could be one of the main reasons. The temperature down there is killing your sperm.”
Typically, this is the sort of thing pro-cyclists are told to worry about, but it can affect everyone. It’s been well studied, with one experiment finding that “the removal of wet heat exposure [i.e. saunas, baths and hot tubs] resulted in improvement in semen quality in nearly one-half of subjects studied.”
But it isn’t just about tight-fitting shorts, or post-gym saunas. While exercise is generally considered a panacea, over-doing it might be detrimental to your little swimmers – whether you’re wearing tight shorts or letting it all hang out. “According to a recent study, over-exercising may be detrimental to sperm production, hypothalamus–pituitary–gonadal axis (HPT) function, increased oxidative stress and chronic inflammation,” explains Olivia Musa from the Male Fertility Clinic. Consequently, these underlying effects result in a low-testosterone production, and reduced semen quality, and can lead to infertility.”
Then again, conversely, there’s plenty to suggest exercise can help. Musa points to studies that show “in the case of patients who are suffering from infertility due to lifestyle-induced causes such as obesity and diabetes, exercise, by increasing testicular antioxidant defence, reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines level and enhancing the steroidogenesis process, leads to improved spermatogenesis and semen quality.” What’s more, men with a higher cardiorespiratory fitness have an increased sperm count and concentration.
Of course, not everyone with an interest in fitness struggles to conceive. Farren Morgan, head coach at The Tactical Athlete, says he had a routine sperm count done in his 20s before he got married. “It wasn’t great,” he explains. “But, I had it done again in my early 30s after consistent training and healthy eating, and it was 100x better.”
Clearly, it’s complicated. Musa stresses that professional and recreational athletes may have different experiences. Thankfully – and rightly – Faisal didn’t blame himself for his low count. His dedication to maintaining a PMA helped. But, he says, it did make him question himself – if only for a short while. “For about a day, it made me a little bit less of a man,” he says. “I’m big, I’m strong, I’m an alpha male. I thought it would be easy to conceive a child, so for a day or so I thought it was shit.”
It turns out that Faisal’s approach may well have helped in the long-run. As Professor Geeta Nargund, medical director of CREATE Fertility, explains, while struggling to conceive can have a negative effect, it goes both ways, and being in a negative mental space can also impact your ability to conceive. “Whilst experiencing fertility issues deeply affect both men and women’s mental wellbeing, there is also evidence to suggest that mental health problems such as stress can lead to reduced libido, erectile dysfunction, and also lower sperm quality. If you are prescribed medication for mental health problems, it is important to check with your doctor if the medication could have an impact on fertility.”
“Just like general health, fertility health can be affected by lifestyle choices, so there are a number of steps men can take to help protect and, in some cases, improve their natural fertility,” Professor Nargund continues. “Regular exercise, in particular, has been found to have a positive effect on male fertility – with evidence suggesting that a sedentary lifestyle can have a bearing on sperm production and quality. Exercise can in turn also help achieve a healthy body weight, which is particularly important given research shows a connection between obesity and reduced sperm function.”
Infertility Doesn't Mean You Should Suffer in Silence
Faisal and Louise’s story ultimately has a happy(ish) ending. Around five years ago, just as they were looking at IVF, Louise became pregnant. Their first child is now four years old. Then, last year, the couple suffered a miscarriage. But, determined to conceive a second child, they sought out a different doctor who shared Faisal’s positive attitude and prescribed a list of supplements for the couple, including DHEA, aspirin, folic acid, and COQ10 for Louise, and ProXeed Plus for Faisal (according to its website, this product works to protect sperm from oxidative stress, as well as improving sperm count, motility, speed, and morphology).
Faisal stresses that this is what was prescribed for their specific issues, and may not be suitable for everyone. But it worked. After three months Louise became pregnant, and their second child is due in September.
What else might work? Musa explains that many people experiencing symptoms of low testosterone are now turning to testosterone replacement therapies, while getting enough sleep, taking supplements containing zinc and magnesium, and eating a clean, varied diet are natural ways to boost your testosterone levels.
If you’re doing all the right things and still not seeing results, Professor Nargund stresses that “it takes the body nearly three months to create new sperm, so if you and your partner are planning to try for a baby soon, it may be a good idea to opt to transition towards healthier lifestyle choices a few months beforehand, if you can.”
Faisal acknowledges how lucky he and Louise are, and says that friends of his have since admitted they are going through the same issues. The outpouring of support on Instagram made him realise how common a problem this is, too.
“The response to my post was amazing, but 99% of it was from women on behalf of their husbands,” says Faisal. “‘Oh, we’re going through the same thing, but my husband won’t talk about it’. It’s a real taboo subject but one that shouldn’t be. People just celebrate the highlights; they don’t put bad shit on Instagram. We’re never taught how to talk about this,” he says. “But that’s changing. It’s generational. My son, when he’s older, he’ll be equipped by our teachings to be able to talk about his emotions.”
Reading this article, reading Faisal’s posts, may have struck a chord. A low sperm count is a problem that any man (and non-gender specific people who can produce sperm) may have to deal with. Thankfully, Faisal has some final words of advice: “If you’re reading this and you’re struggling. Get your sperm checked, and never, ever, ever give up. No matter what science tells you, you have to believe and have faith.”
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