As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date each article was posted or last reviewed. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
Bicycling is a terrific way to get from one place to another. It's also an excellent form of exercise, providing the same health benefits as walking, jogging, swimming, and other aerobic activities. Some men and women avoid bicycling, though, because they worry that it may damage their reproductive organs and harm their sexual function.
Science supports this worry. But it mainly applies to people who cycle a lot. And it isn't inevitable—there are many things you can do to protect your sexual health as you cycle to improve your overall health.
Blame it on the bike seat
When you sit on a chair, your weight is distributed across both buttocks. This takes pressure off the perineum, a region of the body that runs from the anus to the sex organs. It contains the nerves and arteries that supply the penis in men and the clitoris and labia in women. Sitting on a bicycle seat puts pressure on the perineum, compressing those crucial nerves and arteries. This can lead to loss of sensation and other problems.
Nerve damage accounts for the penile numbness that some male bikers experience. Pressure on the pudendal artery can add to this nerve injury to produce temporary or prolonged erectile dysfunction. A narrow bike seat can reduce blood flow to the penis by as much as 66%, and even a broad seat may reduce flow by 25%. The same processes account for bicycling-related sexual problems in women.
What the research shows
Over the past 10 to 15 years, several studies have linked bicycle riding with sexual problems. Here are a few examples.
Norwegian researchers evaluated 160 men who filled in a questionnaire after they participated in a bike tour of some 324 miles. One in five of the men had numbness of the penis, which lasted more than a week in some. Thirteen percent (21 men) developed erectile dysfunction that generally lasted more than a week.
Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health(NIOSH) evaluated 17 members of a bicycling police patrol unit in Cincinnati, Ohio. The men averaged nearly 5½ hours in the saddle each workday. Almost all of them experienced genital numbness from time to time. Those who rode the most were at the highest risk for erectile dysfunction, and the men who exerted the most pressure on their bike seats had the most problems. In a follow-up study, the NIOSH researchers found that bike-riding patrol officers who used a no-nose saddle reported penile numbness far less often than those using a standard saddle.
A team from NIOSH also looked at bike riding and sexual function in women who rode for an average of two hours several days a week. These women experienced decreased genital sensation compared to women to ran several days a week. In a later study, the team found that narrow seats and so-called cut-out seats increased pressure on the perineum.
You don't have to give up biking to preserve your sexual function. In fact, you can break the vicious cycle of biking and sexual dysfunction by taking a few simple precautions.
- Don't use a racing seat with a long narrow nose. Pick a wide seat, ideally with plenty of padding. Special gel-filled and shock-absorbing seats are even available.
- Don't tilt your seat upward, a position that increases pressure on the perineum.
- Be sure your seat is at the correct height, so your legs aren't completely extended at the bottom of your pedal stroke.
- For extra protection, consider wearing padded biking pants.
- Raise the handlebars so you are sitting more upright.
- Shift your position and take breaks during long rides.
Above all, be alert for early warning symptoms. If you experience tingling or numbness in your "privates", get off your bike. If the problem recurs even with a broad, padded, well-positioned seat, consider switching to a recumbent bike.
Perhaps the best advice is to make biking part of a balanced fitness program instead of relying on it exclusively. Alternate riding with walking, jogging or swimming. Climb off your stationary bike and get on a treadmill, elliptical trainer, stair climber, or rowing machine.
If biking is your "thing," mix it up. Exercising a few simple precautions will ensure that your passion for exercise doesn't interfere with your passion in the bedroom.