Forget the scare-mongering; cycling while pregnant is a matter of common sense, and it has plenty of health benefits too for both mother and child.
One thing pregnant women never go short on is advice; cut back on that, don’t do this, stop eating that. So, where does cycling fit in? Is it a sensible way to stay fit and healthy during pregnancy, or are there risks for mother and baby?
More and more research is showing that there are many benefits to cycling while pregnant, and for some reason it can even combat nausea and be a more comfortable form of transport than walking.
National Health Service (NHS) advice on cycling and pregnancy
The official line from the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has changed in the last few years. Where previously it was deemed a risky activity, it's no longer listed as one to avoid.
Instead, the NHS website advises the following: "If you start an aerobic exercise programme (such as running, swimming, cycling, walking or aerobics classes), tell the instructor that you're pregnant and begin with no more than 15 minutes of continuous exercise, three times a week. Increase this gradually to at least four 30-minute sessions a week."
No need to stop, but do take it easy
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) offers a less simplistic assessment of cycling in its leaflet Recreational exercise and pregnancy: information for you, where it suggests these are exercises to be undertaken with “particular care”.
Keen cyclist and GP Dr Andy Ward thinks this cautious approach is more sensible than putting your bike in a shed the moment you find out you are expecting: “If a pregnant woman was a confident cyclist prior to getting pregnant, I would have no problem with her continuing to ride during pregnancy. You are just as likely to fall off as you were before!”
He continues, saying: “I would make her aware that there is a potential risk to the pregnancy if she did crash — BMX racing might not be the best idea!”
This is the view supported by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), who say "Exercise during pregnancy is associated with many health benefits for both the mother and fetus. If a pregnant woman is used to cycling she is no more likely to fall off a bicycle than a non pregnant one. Cycling is often preferred exercise because whilst it is aerobic it is non weight bearing."
Long-distance cycle tourer and author Josie Dew chose to continue cycling throughout her two pregnancies and agrees with Dr Ward that normal, everyday cycling is a reasonable thing for a pregnant woman to do. “I wouldn’t career headlong down a steep rocky hillside off-road, but I think normal cycling is fine — and is actually very beneficial,” she said.
Benefits of cycling while pregnant
What are the advantages of continuing to ride a bike?
“The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists advises that maternal benefits appear to be both physical and psychological in nature,” says Dr Ward. “Many common complaints of pregnancy, including fatigue, varicose veins and swelling of extremities, are reduced in women who exercise. Additionally, active women experience less insomnia, stress, anxiety and depression.
“An argument for public health is that women who incorporate exercise into their routine during pregnancy are more likely to continue exercising after birth. These benefits are not exclusive to cycling, but if that is a woman’s preferred method of exercise, then it beats a sedentary lifestyle.”
The RCM also shared further research into the benefits: "In a Chinese study they found that cycling initiated in early pregnancy, at least three times a week and for at least 30 minutes was associated in reducing the risk of gestational diabetes in pregnant women with high BMI (obese)."
Its spokesperson continues to say that "It is recognised that any aerobic exercise in general (including cycling) has beneficial effects on the mother and fetus as it reduces stress and therefore cortisol, helps maintain healthy weight, blood pressure and blood sugars."
However, while Dr Ward sees many positives to cycling while pregnant, he concedes it’s not entirely risk-free, of course.
“The two main risks of cycling while pregnant are falling off and injuring the foetus, and overheating, which can cause abnormalities in the baby if it occurs in the first trimester. To avoid overheating in the first trimester it is advisable to wear cooler gear, maintain hydration and avoid riding on very hot days,” he says.
This illustrates the value of doing your research, something Victoria Hazael, senior communications and media coordinator of cycling charity CTC, took very seriously during her first pregnancy: “I thought about whether to cycle and did some research online. I realised that there’s a lot of conflicting information out there and it depends which website you look at.”
Ambiguously-worded advice from medical professionals and an overly cautious approach from midwives and obstetricians was seen as one of the main factors dissuading women from continuing to commute by bike while pregnant, according to a study by Davara Lee Bennet published in the Journal of Transport and Health.
Her research was based on interviews and panel discussions with women who had stopped cycling early in pregnancy, those who had carried on until late in their pregnancy, and a mixed group.
While some women stated that the growing size of the pregnancy bump made cycling uncomfortable, others found relief from aches and pains while riding, while some found it helped deal with nausea and was less tiring than walking.
Consult with your midwife
When Hazael spoke to a midwife, she was advised that as she already cycled it was sensible to continue if she wished, “I was told that as I cycle everyday anyway and use my bike as transport, it made sense for me to carry on.”
However, not every medical professional Hazael spoke to was as enthusiastic. “You don’t always see the same midwife throughout your pregnancy, and I met one who was not supportive at all. She told me I shouldn’t have cycled from work to my appointment, so I explained the research I had done, that I cycled every day, and that I didn’t fit in a lot of other exercise. She backed down!”
Josie Dew found that her midwife was happy for her to continue riding. “When I asked her is it okay to keep cycling, she thought I meant maybe half a mile down the road to the shops. But no, I meant 10, 20 or more miles a day. When she realised I normally did a lot more than that a day, she was surprised but very supportive. But she stressed that I shouldn’t push myself, which I didn’t. I just rode the number of miles that I felt like riding.”
The Royal College of Midwives is keen to emphasise the benefits of exercise while pregnant and, as mentioned above, if you are already used to cycling, then it can be beneficial to continue.
It was also keen to challenge some of the assumptions out there, for example informing BikeRadar that "there is no evidence to suggest that cycling has any negative impact on pregnancy such as it has been shown to reduce birth weight or lead to earlier delivery times."
Don't overdo it
If you do decide to cycle during pregnancy, riding sensibly and not overdoing it makes sense. It’s a time for staying healthy, not starting an ambitious training schedule for a sportive or long charity ride.
Dr Ward says: “Fitness and activity levels will naturally decline through the pregnancy, so setting realistic goals is important."
As your pregnancy progresses you may want to adjust your position on the bike to make it more comfortable.
“I raised my handlebars so the riding position was more upright,” says Dew. If you usually ride a road bike, you may want to swap to something more comfortable. Hazael explains, “I rode to work on a mountain bike and later a Brompton folder.”
Towards the end of your pregnancy you can expect to feel more tired and to find cycling more difficult. “As the pregnancy progresses, cycling does get more tricky, especially when you have a physical bump in the way. But I didn’t feel particularly unstable. If I had felt unsteady I probably would have opted to walk or take the bus into work,” Hazael says.
As for when to stop riding altogether, different cyclists come to different conclusions. While Hazael stopped at eight and a half months, largely because of snowy weather, Dew continued to ride to within days of her due date. “I rode up until just a few hours before both girls were born. In fact, I think it was cycling over a bumpy, badly surfaced road that set me into labour with my first child!”
Dr Ward suggests it’s better not to push yourself: “Not being too ambitious in later pregnancy would be my advice. Ride with someone as much as possible and always carry a mobile phone. Comfort and energy levels are probably the biggest factor.”
The research conducted by Bennett in the Journal of Transport and Health also highlighted the importance of a comfortable bike, stating that "wide seats, step-through frames and an upright positioning may increase pregnant women's comfort on the bicycle."
In the end, how much you cycle during pregnancy boils down to listening to your body and using common sense.