What you need to know if you are cycling while pregnant

As an cycling enthusiast with a firm belief that riding for general health makes living in Fort Collins quite pleasurable, it was one of the first things I’d Googled after the test shone positive. Yet the advice was conflicting. Everyone agreed on the physical and psychological benefits of moderate, low-impact exercise during a low-risk pregnancy, and the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), NCBI (National Center of Biotechnology Information), and NIH (National Institute of Health) to “keep up your normal daily physical activity or exercise for as long as you feel comfortable.”  But it also warns against cycling “because there’s a risk of falling.” A sentiment echoed by parenting sites, such as www.Parents.com and www.whattoexpect.com, the latter warning against all but riding an exercise bike as “even if you’re an experienced cyclist, there’s a danger you’ll fall or be knocked off your bike.”

Really?  Granted some accidents will be tragically unavoidable, but isn’t that the case when you cross a road or get into your car?

National cycling organizations offer positive advice and useful tips from raising your handlebars and fitting lower gears to the more spirited “cut down on those off-road descents and don’t race or train in a pack/peloton.”  They also tell you to consult your primary care doctor first, which I did and who is also an active cyclist and mother, Dr. Marie Walsh. She saw no reason why I shouldn’t continue to bike as long as I took it easy and listened to my body.  At three to four months in, my body was feeling good, with the only sniff of morning sickness coming on the initial trimester mornings.

I’m now a week shy of five months pregnant and still merrily, if not a little more breathlessly, cycling what I can to keep up with my husband or be part of the cycling community at grassroots races.  I feel really good and am impressed by how “mobile” I am for this stage of my pregnancy. I’m still riding my much-loved mountain bike and road bike, though I’ve mentally tuned into the fact I will probably have to switch to a commuter bike for the final stretch, as even the smallest inclines are getting ever tougher.  Or I may have to stop cycling altogether, who knows. I’m keeping an open mind about it.

I’ve drawn comfort from the advice of other cyclists who rode until late in their pregnancy, such as Sarah Buck, formerly a designer at bike fashion brand Cyclodelic.  She was a bike courier for 10 years and never considered not cycling while pregnant.  “No one dared tell me not to cycle or they’d have been in trouble. But I felt so comfortable on the bike it was never going to be an issue for me.  I was cycling for an hour and a half of light impact exercise a day and really do think it benefited my body and mind. I had a really healthy pregnancy, and as you’re not putting weight on your legs, it’s actually easier than walking.”

Another cyclist, Josie Dew, author of seven cycling travel books biked 10-15 miles daily throughout both her pregnancies including the actual days she went into labor.  “I recommend cycling while pregnant (that is if your body is already used to a daily pounding of pedals) and then cycling up to your due date.  Seems to get things moving along nicely and at quite a pace, too.”

Healthy pregnant women should get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week.  It’s best to spread your workouts throughout the week. If you regularly engage in vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or high amounts of activity, you can keep up your activity level as long as your health doesn’t change and you talk to your doctor about your activity level throughout your pregnancy.

Special benefits of physical activity during pregnancy:

  • Exercise can ease and prevent aches and pains of pregnancy including constipation, varicose veins, backaches, and exhaustion.
  • Active women seem to be better prepared for labor and delivery and recover more quickly.
  • Exercise may lower the risk of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
  • Fit women have an easier time getting back to a healthy weight after delivery.
  • Regular exercise may improve sleep during pregnancy.
  • Staying active can protect your emotional health. Pregnant women who exercise seem to have better self-esteem and a lower risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Results from a recent, large study suggest that women who are physically active during pregnancy may lower their chances of preterm delivery.

For most healthy moms-to-be who do not have any pregnancy-related problems, exercise is a safe and valuable habit.  Even so, talk to your doctor or therapist before exercising during pregnancy. She or he will be able to suggest a fitness plan that is safe for you.  Getting a doctor’s or therapist’s advice before starting a fitness routine is important for both inactive women and women who exercised before pregnancy.

If you have one of these conditions, your doctor will advise you not to exercise:

  • Risk factors for preterm labor
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Premature rupture of membranes (when your water breaks early, before labor)

Low-impact activities at a moderate level of effort are comfortable and enjoyable for many pregnant women.  Walking, swimming, dancing, cycling, and low-impact aerobics are some examples. These sports also are easy to take up, even if you are new to physical fitness.

Some higher intensity sports are safe for some pregnant women who were already doing them before becoming pregnant.  If you jog, play racquet sports, or lift weights, you may continue. Just “listen” to your body.

Follow these tips for safe and healthy fitness:

  • When you exercise, start slowly, progress gradually, and cool down slowly.
  • You should be able to talk while exercising. If not, you may be overdoing it.
  • Take frequent breaks.
  • Limit exercise on your back after the second trimester.  This can put too much pressure on an important vein and limit blood flow to the baby.
  • Avoid jerky, bouncing, and high-impact movements.  Connective tissues stretch much more easily during pregnancy.  So these types of movements put you at risk of joint injury.
  • Be careful not to lose your balance.  As your baby grows, your center of gravity shifts making you more prone to falls.  For this reason, activities like jogging, using a bicycle, or playing racquet sports might be riskier as you near the third trimester.
  • Make sure you drink lots of fluids before, during, and after exercising.
  • Do not workout in extreme heat or humidity.
  • If you feel uncomfortable, short of breath, or tired, take a break and take it easier when you exercise again.
  • Avoid activities in which you can get hit in the abdomen like kickboxing, boxing, etc.
  • Do not scuba dive during pregnancy.  Scuba diving can create gas bubbles in your baby’s blood that can cause many health problems.

Be careful if you start to experience any of the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Calf pain or swelling
  • Abdominal pain
  • Blurred vision
  • Fluid leaking from the vagina
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Less fetal movement
  • Contractions

As you’d expect things are still not clear on the information out there for pregnancy and cycling, but more guidelines are provided overall.  Not many in the community questioned me about cycling, but there are some people who look at you like you are committing a deadly sin. As long as you “listen” to your body, you will do well with your fitness plan.    

Cycling makes me feel happy and keeping active is key.  I am hoping that this will also help my stamina during birth.  If you’re used to being tired and pushing yourself through some tough hill climbs here in Fort Collins, I bet it can help you handle the pain of childbirth.

Happy Bike to Work Day and stop by our booth on your commute!

Amy LaTendresse Glaser is a physical therapist at Colorado In Motion

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