Today I biked 10 miles round-trip to a local park. No notable feat in the cycling world, except for the fact that technically, there were three of us on the bike. Myself at the helm, my 2½-year-old son in his bike seat, and our newest baby, still snug in my belly and due to arrive this July. I’m 24 weeks pregnant, I’m loving biking as much as ever, and I’m not alone.
With my first child, I rode until I was about 15 weeks pregnant. My obstetrician said that I could continue with my regular exercise routine, including cycling, so long as I listened to my body. But being a nervous first-time mom, I gave up anything remotely concerning: no licking brownie batter from the spatula, no pumping gas at the station, and no more biking.
This time around, I’m feeling more relaxed, and I’ve found encouragement in the tribe of fellow mothers. Stories of women cycling throughout their pregnancies, biking to OB appointments, and even riding to the delivery room have helped buoy my belief that biking is good for me, and for my family.
Dena Driscoll of Philadelphia had a similar experience. She says, “With my first I had a lack of role models and didn’t know if I could and should keep riding. With my second I found lots of supportive transport mamas who gave me inspiration to keep riding.”
Is It Safe?
Pregnancy is not the time to dust off your old mountain bike or to start any new vigorous workout routines. Any physical activity during this time carries risk and requires extra consideration and caution. Many experienced, active cyclists have found biking to be a great source of exercise throughout pregnancy, but each woman must stick to her own comfort level and discuss her options with her health-care provider.
While the Mayo Clinic recommends that healthy pregnant women, without complications, exercise for 30 minutes per day, every day, doctor opinions on biking while pregnant are mixed. The physical process of pedaling can be a great workout for the pregnant body, but there is a risk of falling, which can be a significant hazard for both mother and baby. Some doctors recommend stationary bikes as an option for expectant moms but dislike the idea of pregnant women riding on the road.
All of the women I interviewed consulted a health professional and got the green light to ride. Personally, I’ve received conflicting advice from various providers. Two said that continuing to ride was reasonable, as long as I stay hydrated, wear a helmet, and stop when I need to. One said that the risk of falling is too great, and I should restrict my cycling to a stationary bike.
More than Mere Pedaling
Unfortunately, a stationary bike would eliminate everything I love about biking: fresh air, chatting with my son, freedom, picking up groceries without paying for gas or impacting the environment. It would also require a gym membership and childcare.
Ultimately, each woman must weigh the risks for herself. Regina Sinsky-Crosby, a San Francisco mom now cycling through her third pregnancy, says, “Based on statistics, pregnant women shouldn’t drive because the risk of an accident is so high.” She also mentions the support her providers have offered, “My midwife and my ob-gyn — I have both — have no problem with me riding. My ob rides her bike to work.”
For some moms, cycling isn’t just about fun and exercise; it’s their primary mode of transportation. Driscoll’s family has one car; her husband uses it for his work commute. “I also had to get places, so it was either by bike, foot, or public transport during the day.” She biked when she could, but she also took breaks when necessary. “I listened to my body, and if I needed to, I just took the bus.”
Of course, pregnant women should discuss any concerns with their providers and do only what they feel psychologically and physically comfortable with. Pregnancy is not a time to push through pain — that part comes later.
While cycling through pregnancy may be a great option for many women, there are obstacles and special considerations. Pregnant women require a great deal of water as their blood volume doubles, amniotic fluid is created, and nutrients are delivered to the growing baby via fluid. Staying hydrated and keeping a moderate heart rate (my provider recommended keeping mine below 140 while cycling) are especially important during exercise.
The first few months of pregnancy are incredibly taxing for most women. Driscoll says, “The first trimester is exhausting: You want to give up doing everything in life and just sleep.” However, some mothers find that a little cycling is just what they need, both physically and emotionally. Bobbie Jennings of Ames, Iowa, says, “I was very tired during my first trimester, and I was surprised at how much better I felt after a ride. Biking makes me feel incredibly empowered, and the feeling was even more powerful while I was pregnant.”
Josie Dew, an experienced cyclist who’s written seven books on bike travel, continued riding right up until the day she delivered. She says, “I felt fine all the way up to the last day. In the last few weeks, it just felt like I’d eaten five times too much, and I got out of breath very easily.”
As pregnancy progresses, balance may become an issue. Decreased lung capacity and general fatigue may also slow riders. But some of the problems pregnant cyclists encounter are more trivial. Shannon Brescher Shea, who lives and rides in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., says, “I didn’t have any problems with balance, and my stomach was not in the way until quite late. I had more problems finding clothes I could wear biking than actually getting on the bike!”
Becoming a parent requires relinquishing our expectations of perfection. Long before we surrender uninterrupted bathroom breaks, warm meals, and unbroken nights of sleep, pregnant cyclists give in to physical limitations. Shea says, “Even though I’m usually a stickler for pushing up hills, I accepted that if riding was too hard that it was a good thing to get off and walk.” Careful consideration and adaptation are necessary when cycling during pregnancy. This may include raising handlebars, taking alternate routes, slowing down, and shortening trips.
Some studies have shown that mothers with increased fitness levels have shorter labors with fewer complications. Amber Dallman of Saint Paul, Minnesota, sees biking as an excellent way to prepare for birth. “People don’t do marathons without training — why would you go into labor without training? Riding my bike was one of the things I did to train for labor. I feel strongly that being regularly physically active helped me through my labor and also helped my recovery.”
Cycling provides some unique physical benefits. According to Driscoll, “Biking in particular is great if your feet are swollen or you are having back problems, because it doesn’t put stress on your feet and back the way walking does.”
Cycling for transportation in the U.S. is often viewed as risky. Add in young children or pregnant women, and there is sure to be some criticism. Dallman mentions the harsh judgment of others as the only negative of riding while pregnant. She says, “It’s not culturally accepted. People, unfortunately, think it’s strange.” Yet, there is little condemnation for mothers speeding down the freeway, walking along the side of busy roads, or perhaps least healthy, doing nothing at all. I hope that over time, cycling will become a more accepted means of both transportation and exercise.
While I am greatly encouraged by women who’ve ridden right up until delivery, I’m going to take things a day at a time. There will come a day when I put the bike away, likely for many months. My energy and attention will once again turn inward, to preparing to welcome a new person to our family.
There will be quiet snuggles, nursing, the rhythm of diaper changes, laundry cycles, and the simple pleasures of the intimate, early newborn days. I will find comfort and joy in that period of relative rest. That pause. But, for now I will continue to feel grateful each time I saddle up, each block I pedal, every little hill I conquer, and every moment spent in the sunshine with both of my babies aboard my bike.
For more information about pregnant cyclists, take a look at the Simply Bike blog.