Exercise can be an absolute godsend during pregnancy. Not only can a good sweat sesh help ward off some of the typical aches and pains of this beautiful-yet-uncomfortable chapter, it can also be the perfect way to clear your mind of those equally typical mom-to-be worries. Many women can continue their pre-pregnancy exercise routines throughout those nine months, adjusting for their ever growing bump along the way. Cycling is the exercise of choice for many women, but is it safe to ride a bike while pregnant?
There’s a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm I always thought of when I was exercising while pregnant. Larry David, while watching a pregnant friend jog on the treadmill, tells her, “You’re jostling the fetus! You can’t run in your condition!” Obviously, David’s comment is as ignorant as it is inappropriate, but the imagery made me laugh every time I laced up my sneakers. While “jostling” is not a legitimate concern you should have during your prenatal workouts, are there any types of exercises that are better suited or safer than others during pregnancy?
Whether you’re an avid outdoor cyclist or you’re on the Peloton every morning before the sun comes up, there are some things to know when you’ve got a baby on board.
The Benefits Of Exercising During Pregnancy
I’ve been lucky enough to be pregnant two times, and my exercise routines during both can be described most simply as night and day. During my first pregnancy, a leg injury prevented me from doing most of my favorite cardio activities, and I laid on the couch for a good portion of those 40 weeks. My second pregnancy, I exercised four to six times a week, every week. I was also less anxious, less sore, less of an insomniac, less swollen, and less irritable during my second pregnancy... who woulda thought? Of course, personal anecdotes don’t mean much. What does the science say about exercise during pregnancy?
In short: if you’re cleared to exercise during pregnancy, it’ll do nothing but good things. Regular exercise can, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, reduce back pain, ease constipation, promote healthy weight gain, improve your overall fitness, and strengthen your heart and blood vessels. It can even potentially decrease your risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and needing a cesarean delivery.
So, while committing to regular exercise doesn’t guarantee your pregnancy will be a total walk in the park, it may just make the entire experience a bit smoother. And when it comes to choosing your exercise-of-choice, cycling may be one of the best options available.
When you are pregnant, your body is pumping out a hormone called relaxin, which “allows ligaments in the pelvic area to relax and the joints to become looser in preparation for the birth process,” according to WebMD. On the flip side, however, relaxin causes other joints in your body to also have more laxity than normal — making them vulnerable to injury. “When performing exercise, you don't want to ever over-stretch joints or muscles,” explains Sarah Dimmitt, PT, DPT, in an interview with Romper. “A woman may have more control over her pelvic floor when biking as opposed to higher impact activities.”
Understanding Your Pelvic Floor
I don’t know about you, but I knew approximately nothing about my pelvic floor prior to birthing a baby — and I only studied up at that point because my pelvic floor was struggling. Luckily, you can help prevent potential pelvic floor issues by taking care of it during your prenatal cycling.
“While sitting on the saddle, you want to activate your transverse abdominis to protect your core and make sure pressure in your system is being distributed appropriately. Proper breathing mechanics — breathing with your diaphragm — are also important in regulating internal pressure,” Dimmitt instructs. She says to think of your internal system like a soda can: the top of the can is the diaphragm, the bottom of the can is the pelvic floor, the front is your core and abdominal muscles, and the back is your posterior core. “Contracting your transverse abdominis is protecting that front wall of the diaphragm and helping maintain appropriate pressure while performing diaphragmatic breathing,” Dimmitt says.
While you’re cycling, it’s important to note any tenderness or pressure you feel anywhere in your pelvis or your pelvic floor (think in and around the vagina and anus). If you’re noticing any issues, you’ll want to let your OB-GYN know. You may benefit from seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist throughout your pregnancy to alleviate pain or discomfort and prepare you for postpartum.
Stationary Vs. Outdoor Biking
There’s a huge difference between riding in the bike lane on a jam-packed city street and logging some miles on a stationary bike parked safely in your own basement. Dr. Kiarra King, an OB-GYN based in the Chicago area, says she would sign off on only the latter for her patients. Stationary bikes offer stability and safety for a mom and her growing bump, she explains, while riding outdoors comes with a host of things that can make you lose your balance, from cars whizzing past to simple bumps in the road.
“When you’re not pregnant, you fall, you get back up, you dust off your hands, and you keep it moving,” Dr. King says to Romper in an interview. “When you’re pregnant, especially depending on how far along you are, especially with later gestational ages, now you’ve potentially sustained a trauma to your belly, especially depending on how you landed.” She adds that even if you don’t land on your belly, you may land harder than usual on other body parts in an instinctive attempt to shield your belly.
If you’re a dedicated outdoor cyclist, it can be sad to stow your bike away for the duration of your pregnancy. Hopefully, a stationary bike is an adequate replacement for the time being.
Protecting Your Bump On A Bike
During pregnancy, many moms-to-be are in search of a more low-impact way to break a sweat, but is it safe to start using a stationary bike if you haven’t in the past? The general exercise advice during pregnancy is to stick with what you’ve always done prior to pregnancy, rather than taking this time to start something new. Dr. King, however, says you can incorporate new exercises as long as you take it slow and really ease into it, and she always encourages her patients to get moving in some way. So put on some music, stretch, hop on your bike, and get pedaling at your own pace.
In fact, going at your own pace and listening to your body is really the theme of prenatal exercising. Rather than suggesting any general modifications for pregnant cyclists, Dr. King says the most important adjustment to make is simply being more in tune with your body than ever before. “If you need to decrease the frequency of your cycling sessions, listen to your body. If you feel like you’re overdoing it, you may have to slow down. You don’t have to keep up, especially with some of the programmed cycle rides that people do. If you can’t keep up because you’re out of breath, slow down,” Dr. King instructs. Most importantly, never ignore any pain or discomfort while exercising. There’s a time and place to push your body to its limits, and pregnancy isn’t that time. (At least, not in an exercise sense. You’ll be pushed to your limits physically in plenty of other ways!)
Equally important to listening closely to your body during rides is properly warming up before and cooling off after your rides, Dimmitt says. “Some strengthening exercises that can be performed as a warm-up are glute exercises with appropriate core activation,” Dimmitt explains, like hip bridges and clam shells, as well as “practicing transverse abdominis bracing/activation which helps prevent distention of the abdominal wall and diastasis recti, splitting of the superficial abdominals.” When you’ve wrapped up a ride, Dimmitt recommends stretching the lower body and doing some diaphragmatic breathing to open up the pelvic floor muscles and reinstate relaxation.
Red Flags To Look For When Biking While Pregnant
First and foremost, talk with your doctor before beginning any exercise routine during pregnancy! It’s good and well to read online that, in general, stationary bikes during pregnancy are safe, but your healthcare provider knows your specific circumstances, medical history, and risk factors. If you have certain conditions or issues with your pregnancy, like preterm labor or placenta previa, for example, your doctor may tell you that exercise is off the table.
Even if you’ve gotten the OK to exercise, there are still a variety of red flags you should have on your radar. Remember that listening to your body and taking things minute-by-minute is key. Dr. King says if you begin bleeding, are experiencing regular cramping or contractions, have persistent shortness of breath or pain, or suspect your water has broken, you need to immediately call your healthcare provider (at the very least). Your doctor may have you rest at home and continue to monitor things, or they may instruct you to come in for a check-up. Of course, if you suspect any sort of medical emergency, never hesitate to head straight in. When it comes to your baby, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
As your pregnancy progresses and you get closer to your due date, things will naturally feel a little bit different. If a mom is full-term and noticing more consistent contracting during her workout, it’s probably not a bad thing, Dr. King explains. “But if I have a mom who’s 24 weeks and she’s noticing contractions every 5 to 10 minutes, that is more concerning because we want to be on the lookout at those gestational ages for preterm labor.” While exercising does not increase your odds of experiencing preterm labor, it is not safe to continue exercising if preterm labor has started.
When safe and possible, exercise is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and your baby during pregnancy. Not only does it have a variety of proven physical benefits, but so many mental and emotional struggles of pregnancy can be eased with a healthy dose of endorphins. While it’s recommended that you take a hiatus from outdoor cycling until after your babe’s birthday, there’s no need for you to miss that 30-minute hip hop ride you’ve been looking forward to. Keep listening to your body, and happy cycling!
Sarah Dimmitt, PT, DPT
Dr. Kiarra King, OB-GYN