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New US research has found that female cyclists are more likely to experience problems such as urinary tract infections, genital numbness and saddle sores than non-cyclists, but the activity does not put them at a higher risk of more serious sexual and urinary symptoms. 

There are many health benefits to cycling, including a lower risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease. However, previous small studies have suggested that the cycling may also be linked to sexual dysfunction, which has led to the wide-scale belief that the sport could negatively affect urinary or sexual function. 

To investigate further, researchers from UC San Francisco looked at female athletes from the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

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The women were recruited from major cycling, swimming and running organizations, with the swimmers and runners used as a comparison group.

Cyclists were then divided into two groups — low-intensity and high-intensity riders. High-intensity riders were defined as women who had cycled for more than two years and rode their bikes more than three times weekly, averaging more than 25 miles each time.

In total 3,118 cyclists completed the Female Sexual Function Index and the American Urological Symptom Index questionnaire, with the majority of participants under the age of 40 and a normal weight.

The researchers also asked the cyclists about their bike type (mountain, road, hybrid, recumbent); saddle type (wide, unpadded, long); frequency of wearing padded shorts; amount of time standing while cycling; saddle angle; handlebar height; and type of riding surface (urban, rural, off road).

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After taking into account various factors, such as age, race, body mass index, hypertension, diabetes and tobacco use, the team found that cyclists did have a higher risk of experiencing urinary tract infections, genital numbness and saddle sores than non-cyclists.

However, the cyclists showed no worse sexual or urinary function than the non-cyclists. In fact, the results suggested that the high-intensity cyclists may benefit from improved sexual function, although the researchers did warn that smaller gynecological problems could possibly lead to problems related to sexual dysfunction later on.

“One of the more novel findings of the study is that lifetime miles ridden were directly correlated with saddle sores and urinary tract infections,” commented first author Thomas W. Gaither. “These findings may be considered by some as minor, however, saddle sores and infections may inhibit sexual activity. If we could find a way to prevent saddle sores and infections, we believe that cycling might improve the sexual health of women.”

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Another US study published earlier this year which looked at whether cycling could negatively affect the sexual or urinary health of men found that in general, male cyclists’ sexual and urinary health was no worse than that of swimmers or runners. However, the findings did suggest that male cyclists were more prone to urethral strictures, which is when a scar from swelling, injury or infection blocks or slows the flow of urine in the urethra. The team also found that standing more than 20 percent of the time while cycling significantly reduced the chance of genital numbness, and adjusting the handlebar height to be higher or even with the saddle also reduced the chance of genital numbness and saddle sores. 

The new study can be found published online in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.