This year there’s been a lot of ink spilled and quotes spewed about women’s reproductive rights: whether we deserve them, whether rape is a legitimate way to start a family, whether we deserve any publicly funded medical attention for our uteri and ovaries. While we soldier through these questions, pausing to vote on November 6 (oh, and don’t forget! Roe v Wade’s fortieth anniversary is on January 22, 2013!), we ought to think about the little things we can do to protect our health and the health of our families, real or planned. This brings me to bikes.
The act of cycling is proving to be a cure-all for so many things, lately: a way to avoid paying for expensive gasoline and a great way to navigate the storm-soaked streets of New York, to name but two. I think we need to use our bikes to protect and champion our reproductive rights! It’s our health and fertility. If we don’t love our bodies first and best, who will?
Biking is a simple, inexpensive, and effective form of moderate exercise that fits nicely into the health and fitness needs of the actively fertile, the trying-to-get-pregnant, the menstruating, and the peri-menopausal. During every phrase of a woman’s reproductive cycle—which can last forty years, give or take—biking is good for women’s reproductive health.
The definition of “moderate exercise” largely depends on what you bring to the table, health-wise, and needs to be explored in conversations with your doctor or midwife. Your cardiovascular health is incredibly important throughout your life, especially during pregnancy: your heart is supporting you and your developing fetus.
Between 12 to 15 miles per hour is considered to be a moderate speed, attainable by most reasonably healthy women.
Biking mommies: Fertility and pregnancy health
Let’s talk about biking while pregnant. If you’re a novice cyclist, get a bike that supports you in an upright position, like this Sedona DX W bicycle, manufactured by Giant Bikes.
Later in your pregnancy, you might find that swapping your handlebars out for ones that are wider is a good idea. A wider seat, too, might come in handy. This Cite X Gel Saddle by Terry is perfect. (And no, this isn’t product placement. I just really like Terry saddles.)
My mother biked into her second trimester while pregnant with my brother and sister, who are twins. “I did it until my legs were knocking against my stomach,” she told me.
(A quick digression into the politics of motherhood here: Mom didn’t know she was carrying twins. Her doctor, preferring to keep that information to himself, surprised her with this news one day before she delivered. “He told me the day before! And he knew! I was furious,” she recalls now. “He didn’t think I could handle it. What a jackass.”)
Mom biked over the flat streets of Newport Beach. “I rode all over the place,” she told me. “I put your sister Anne in the baby seat on the back of the bike, and away we’d go. It was fun! Your Dad had a bike, too. It was an easy way to get exercise, and spend quality family time together.” She felt that the muscles of her pelvic girdle benefited from the gentle toning they received while cycling. “I think riding the bike helped with the birthing process,” she says.
Medical experts agree. “Cycling and other forms of moderate exercise can strengthen the cardiovascular system. Labor is like running a marathon. It’s a long, hard workout. Getting exercise can help with that,” says Dr. Diana Coffa, Health Sciences Assistant Clinical Professor at the UCSF School of Medicine. “A healthy body is better prepared for pregnancy.”
Wendy Hepworth of San Francisco biked during both of her pregnancies. With her first pregnancy, she biked into her 38th week of gestation. “Biking was the easiest way to get around to all of my appointments,” she says. “I didn’t want to give up my mobility just because I was pregnant. I liked the low impact aspect of biking, especially as I got heavier in the pregnancy.”
Wendy maintained her commitment to exercising throughout her second pregnancy. “With my second it was more of a challenge to bike everywhere since I was now hauling me, a toddler, and a growing belly up Bernal Hill.” Wendy was aware of people’s reactions to seeing a pregnant woman on a bike. “There was a small smug bit of me that loved seeing people do a double take as I rode by with one on the back and one on the front!”
An important element to Wendy’s experience with cycling was the support she got from her midwife. “Lots of people told me I was crazy, but my midwife was supportive. She told me to listen to my body. If it feels good, it is good.”
My mother’s and Wendy’s decision to cycle may explain their success at getting pregnant: moderate exercise may help women get pregnant faster. A Danish and U.S. study from March 2012 found that women who engaged in 20 to 39 hours each week of moderate physical activity had the shortest times to pregnancy. What exactly does exercise do? It keeps hormone levels stable. Too much fat can translate to higher levels of estrogen, which can inhibit fertility in much the same way a birth control pill does. Too little fat can trigger a drop in the production and metabolism of estrogen, which can weaken the reproductive cycle. Twelve percent of all infertility cases are a result of a woman weighing either too little or too much.
Bottom line? Our reproductive systems thrive on stable hormone levels. “Scientific data shows that exercise can moderate hormonal levels around ovaries and help promote regular ovulation,” says Dr. Coffa.
During pregnancy: biking for you and baby
Moderate exercise also may alleviate some of the most common discomforts of pregnancy and keep away problems that can develop after the 20th week of gestation. Leg cramps, aching lower back and hips, and nausea are all symptoms of pregnancy that some women cycle to counteract.
Wendy had more luck with alleviating the aches and pains than with treating morning sickness. “I had horrible morning sickness that lasted all day,” says Wendy. “There were several mornings where I vomited in sewer grates on my way to yoga.” But she pushed through this period. “I did find that cycling helped with leg cramps and hip tightness. I also appreciated being able to get into a supported forward position.” By leaning on the handlebars, she says, “Cycling often gave me relief in my lower back.”
There is some purely anecdotal evidence that cycling might help contend with nausea. “I hear women saying cycling does help! There are some women who swear by it,” says Dr. Coffa. “There isn’t any scientific data proving that cycling can alleviate morning sickness. But it can’t hurt to try!” One woman who swears by it is blogger Anna of Chicago, who writes, “Biking in the fresh air was better for my stomach than the normal smells of the bus and trains.”
Cycling can help with pregnancy-related edema, the collecting of fluid—mostly blood and lymph—in your soft tissues. The trick to decreasing discomfort from swelling is to get this fluid back into circulation. “The volume of blood moving through your body has increased, to support the pregnancy. Women get pooling in their soft tissues. Cycling helps with swelling because any sort of exercise and movement will help get the fluid back into circulation and moving back into the veins and heart,” says Dr. Coffa.
There is some evidence that exercise may help keep gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia from developing, two serious issues that typically occur in the second trimester. Pre-eclampsia or gestational hypertension is a condition that in the United States affects 7% of pregnant women. These women develop dangerously high blood pressure, which can lead to placental abruption, massive hemorrhaging, and sometimes, tragically, fetal and maternal death. Pre-eclampsia is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality: it kills women, and of those women, it kills African American women at a higher rate.
And in countries like the United States that unwisely ban safe late-term abortion procedures, which deliberately ignore the health of the mother, pre-eclampsia has the potential to kill even more women.
It isn’t clear what causes pre-eclampsia. Many doctors feel it may have to do with the mother’s immune system. Chronically high blood pressure and a Body Mass Index (BMI) above 25% are both factors associated with pre-eclampsia.
Both high blood pressure and higher levels of adipose tissue can be treated by exercising at least four days a week for twenty minutes. By comparing two groups, it was found that women who exercise have a 20 percent lower risk for pre-eclampsia.
Gestational diabetes is another issue that can pop up. This happens when a mother’s hormones block insulin from picking up excess sugar in the bloodstream, which leads to dangerous levels of glucose in the blood.
“There is some good data showing that exercise helps prevent gestational diabetes, probably because it helps women moderate and influence their BMI and overall body composition. As far as pre-eclampsia goes, we do have studies suggesting that women who exercise tend to have a lower incidence of pre-eclampsia,” says Dr. Coffa. “The studies don’t show a definite causal relationship. It may simply be that the women who came into the study already had good health habits established.”
Radically switching gears during pregnancy to compensate for a history of bad health habits might not be the best approach. If anything, the lack of causality in the studies may be the best argument for establishing good health habits preemptively, before getting pregnant.
What about after giving birth? Dr. Coffa says you can get back on a bike, barring any complications or injury, as soon as four weeks after delivery. It’s your call. Do what feels right.
Menopause, mood swings, and management
Oh, menopause. For all the work that has gone into reclaiming this interesting part of the female reproductive cycle, I gotta say it: I will be so happy to leave you and all your symptoms (sleeplessness, mood swings, and rampant irritability) behind.
One way to manage these symptoms is riding a bike of one’s own. Here, I’m going to dispense advice based on my direct experience. (As a feminist, I value self-generated, self -observed knowledge about my health.) In contrast to the moderate, ambling approach suggested for pregnant women, I’m going to suggest that peri- and menopausal women bike at least four times a week at a more vigorous speed, 15 to 20 mph. A 150 lb. woman, biking at this speed, can expect to burn up to 726 calories an hour.
Breaking a sweat and elevating your heart rate is a simple way to ensure that you get as close to that caloric burn as possible. Aim for a pace in which normal conversation becomes slightly difficult. (Don’t kill yourself. Challenge yourself.) Get on that bike and head for the nearest street, gentle slope, hill or velodrome (Note: San Jose has a frickin’ velodrome! Why doesn’t San Francisco?)
Stand up in the pedals and pump away. Notice how your breath, which may be ragged from anxiety or rage, evens out. Feel your battered psyche reunite with your soul. The daily ration of outrage, suspicion and paranoia will be consumed and absorbed by your friend, the bike.
Not feeling any of those things? Well, lucky you. Get on your bike, anyway.
In a year where so many Republican theocrats (and some Democrats) seem to be doing their best to ruin women’s reproductive health, we owe it to ourselves to take care of ourselves.
Vote for people who care about your uterus, and the integrity of your family by all means, but take measures to protect your health, too! The Goddess helps those who help themselves!