New research refutes the theory that pressure from saddles can cause erectile dysfunction, and says cycling could actually improve performance in older men.
Few doubt that cycling helps you get healthy. One study last year found cyclists are less likely to develop heart disease or cancer, and a 2011 review showed it improves fitness and leads to longer lives. But there’s an area of men’s health that has been the subject of a persistent question: does time spent in the saddle lead to problems in the sack?
In recent years, scientists have linked cycling with several male health problems, including erectile dysfunction, which they speculate is caused by the saddle decreasing blood flow to the penis. In one study, Norwegian researchers gathered data from 160 men after they took part in a long-distance bike tour. They found that one in five suffered with numbness to the penis that lasted up to a week after the tour, and 13% developed erectile dysfunction that lasted more than a week in most cases.
Another study linked cycling to prostate cancer – or at least, that’s how some corners of the media reported it. But the researchers admitted their sample was small, that more research was needed, and that their findings did not necessarily mean there was a direct link between cycling and prostate cancer.
A study in 2009 involving 15 Spanish triathletes found that those with low enough levels of sperm to constitute a fertility problem were cycling more than 300km every week. The researchers suggested triathletes could have their sperm frozen before races as a precautionary measure, but also clarified that a man cycling to work would be unlikely to suffer the same consequences.
Now cycling is in with a chance of shedding this image problem, thanks to new research suggesting it does not damage men’s sexual or urinary functions at all. The researchers say previous studies arguing that cycling can cause erectile dysfunction relied on small samples, whereas this study involved more than 2,500 cyclists.
They recruited a group of male cyclists, as well as swimmers and runners who did not cycle, and asked them about their sexual health, prostates, any experiences of genital numbness and saddle sores. They found the cyclists had no worse sexual or urinary functions than the swimmers or runners, but they were more prone to urethral stricture, which can restrict the flow of urine. And in fact, while controlling for age, they found that higher intensity cyclists actually had fewer cases of erectile dysfunction.
They also found that cyclists who stood more than 20% of the time while cycling had significantly lower odds of experiencing genital numbness afterwards, compared to cyclists who never stand.
Benjamin Breyer, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and researcher on the study, advises cyclists to take steps to avoid numbness after long cycles.
“I think that the riding behaviours that lead to prolonged perineal numbness should be avoided,” he said.
“Transient erectile issues can arise after very long rides in male riders. There are different seat designs that put less pressure on the perineum, and getting off or out of the riding saddle can definitely help prevent numbness.”
But, he assures riders, cycling does not cause erectile dysfunction (ED). “The issue is more nuanced than just whether cycling causes ED or not. Certainly, just sitting on the couch or in front of the computer eight hours a day is the worst thing for your sexual and overall health.”
And for those who avoid cycling for fear it will make their ED worse, Breyer said, “My sense is that, for many, the cardiovascular benefits of the exercise will actually support and potentially improve their performance, not hurt it.”
Gurminder Mann, consultant urological surgeon at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, agrees, and said the study confirms that the risk to the sexual and urological function of male cyclists is minimal.
“There have been poor quality studies in the past suggesting that pressure from saddles may compromise blood flow or cause minor injuries that accumulate over time,” he said.
“This study refutes that hypothesis and should reassure men to carry on cycling. It is especially helpful to men of a certain age as cycling gives benefits to the heart and has low impact on joints. Indeed, the main risk of cycling is that to your body image. The wearing of lycra offers no place to hide.”
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