Journal / By Tara Parker-Pope
Score One for the Couch Potatoes:
New Studies Link Bicycling to Impotence
THE NOTION THAT BICYCLING is linked to impotence has long
been ridiculed. Now, new research is giving credence to the theory,
even among once-ardent opponents in the cycling industry.
Last week, the biggest gathering of bicycle manufacturers in
the country for the first time acknowledged the problem with a
symposium, hosted by a noted urologist, called "Bicycle Riding:
Good for Health, Bad for Sex, Fact or Fiction." In the next
few days, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
is expected to publish research that found some erectile dysfunction
among bicycle policemen. The health worries have even prompted
a handful of manufacturers to develop newfangled bike seats aimed
at solving the problem.
The concern that bike riding can increase a man's risk for erectile
dysfunction is a controversial message that has long been rejected
by the cycling community. Two years after Bicycling magazine first
reported on the risk for impotence, the magazine followed up with
an article claiming cyclists actually make better lovers.
But even bike enthusiasts now concede the sport can cause problems.
Chris Love, the 43-year-old manager of Landry's Bicycles in Westboro,
Mass., said he often experienced numbness after bike rides, and
about live years ago began suffering from such significant erectile
dysfunction he feared he wouldn't have children.
Scaling back his long rides didn't help. So he began using the
Body Geometry bike seat, which has a triangle-shaped wedge cut
out of the middle. After using the seat for three months, his
Mr. Love, who now has a 16-month-old son, says customers come
to his store every day complaining of problems. "You're in
the middle of a ride and things go numb, it's very uncomfortable,"
The problem, which can also occur with stationary bikes, is one
of simple physics. When a person sits down on a chair, body weight
is distributed over a wide surface area that includes the buttocks
and thighs. But when someone gets on a bicycle seat, the weight
is distributed over a much smaller area, increasing the pressure
on the crotch by five or six times. A typical bike seat directs
all that pressure against the perineum, the part of the body that
contains the nerves and arteries to the genitals. Women can also
experience numbness and sexual dysfunction as a result.
41-year-old Atlanta veterinarian who had hiked for three years
suffered permanent damage to an artery after a 100mile ride. He
underwent surgery to regain sexual function. "I wanted to
believe it was psychological because I enjoyed biking so much,"
It's unclear how widespread the problem really is. Irwin Goldstein,
a professor of urology and gynecology at the Boston University
School of Medicine and the sport's leading critic, says his research
shows cyclists have four times the rate of impotence compared
with track athletes. A 1997 Scandinavian study of cyclists taking
part in a several-hundred-mile race found that 13% of riders had
at least temporary impotence.
Urologists differ over whether biking is linked to impotence.
Many doctors say the cardiovascular benefits of the sport likely
would counteract any small additional risk for sexual problems.
But after a doctor noticed several Long Beach, Calif., bicycle
policemen were complaining of numbness and erectile dysfunction,
the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, known
as NIOSH, decided to study the matter. Researchers studied the
quality and doration of night-time erections, a strong indicator
of overall sexual health, among 17 bicycle policemen and five
men who didn't ride bikes. The study, to be published this month
in the Journal of Andrology, showed that the policemen had erections
during 27% of their sleep cycle compared with 43% among nonpolicemen,
says Steven M. Schrader, chief of the reproductive health assessment
section for NIOSH. In the study, 93% of the policemen said they
experienced genital numbness.
The findings aren't conclusive because the study was small, and
NIOSH is planning more research. The policemen also stay on their
bike about six hours a day, so the results can't be applied to
recreational bike use.
To address the problem, a handful of seat makers have introduced
nose-less split-seat bike saddles, which Dr. Goldstein says ease
the pressure on the perineum and allow for normal blood flow to
the genital area. But the odd-looking seats have been slow to
"It's a radical design," says Jim Bombardier, president
of Bycycle Inc., the Portland, Ore., maker of the BiSaddle seat,
which sells for about $50.
Newspaper publisher Robert Dix, 63, of Hebron, Ohio, put BiSaddles
on all three of his bikes after prostate surgery two years ago.
He recently completed a 56-mile bike ride using the seat. "It
takes a little while getting used to it," he says. "But
I stayed comfortable."
Critics say it's unrealistic to think most cyclists will use
a nose-less seat, Bikers often feel they interfere with balance
and are uncomfortable. As an alternative, Roger Minkow, a doctor
who once designed ergonomic airline seats, created the Body Geometry
seat now sold by Specialized Inc. of Morgan Hill, Calif. The saddle
still has the long thin nose, but the wedge cut out of the seat
is said to ease the pressure on the perineum, and in one small
study, the majority of men said the seat did help relieve numbness
and ED symptoms.
In addition to changing bicycle seats, Dr. Goldstein suggests
limiting cycling to three hours a week or less, sitting upright
to relieve pressure on the perineum, and getting up off the seat
more often while riding.