How Peloton Is Working to Change the Narrative On Prenatal Fitness
When Robin Arzón announced her pregnancy during a now-iconic Peloton ride last September, she made one thing very clear: She was not about to cut fitness out of her life.
"Moving is one of the most fundamental things we can do," says Arzón, VP of fitness programming. "I was really excited to bring prenatal workouts to our members during my pregnancy so we could keep hustling while on our own journeys." In fact, Arzón hustled right up to her due date, delivering a healthy baby girl named Athena Amelia in March. While she has yet to return to her regular jam-packed teaching schedule, she's continued to drop pre-recorded workouts throughout her maternity leave and keeps fans updated on her post-natal recovery and training via Instagram.
Luckily, Arzón got some help on her mission to empower other expectant moms with a hustler state of mind. Coinciding with the head instructor's baby news was the announcement that Peloton was welcoming two new members to their wellness advisory council: prenatal experts Heather Irobunda, M.D., and Pooja Lakshmin, M.D. As part of the company's go-to group of medical professionals who help shape class content, both doctors joined Arzón in her ambitious undertaking to transform and debunk stereotypes around pregnancy and exercise. Peloton handpicked Dr. Irobunda, a board-certified ob-gyn, and Lakshmin, a psychiatrist specializing in perinatal psychology, for their respective expertise on the intersections of mental and physical health during and after pregnancy.
"Peloton reached out to me a few months ago after they found me online — this actually happened!" says Dr. Irobunda (If you've seen her hilarious, educational, and totally relatable Instagram and Tiktok content, you can understand why she would have caught their attention.) "I thought it was amazing that Peloton wanted to expand their focus to specifically look at how their wellness and fitness programming could improve prenatal health. Oftentimes, people think of pregnancy as an illness, but it's actually a time when the human body accomplishes one of the most amazing and strongest feats — creating and nurturing another human!"
Dr. Lakshmin, who founded Gemma, a digital women's mental health education platform, in 2020 admits she was a bit taken aback when Peloton approached her for the opportunity as she didn't consider herself a "fitness" person. "It was inspiring to hear about how Peloton wants to reach folks who aren't just athletes, but just regular people as well," she says. "This really spoke to me, and in learning about how much energy and attention they're putting into empowering pregnant and postpartum people, it just felt like the perfect fit for me to bring my advocacy and education work from Instagram into the Peloton community!"
Together Arzón, the Peloton family, and Drs. Irobunda and Lakshmin could now focus on shifting the narrative around what pregnant women are capable of on the bike, treadmill, and beyond.
"You can work out when you're pregnant!" says Dr. Irobunda, putting it bluntly. "I know that when you're pregnant, you don't want to do anything that may harm the baby, but as long as you make modifications to ensure that you're exercising safely, go for it! It not only helps you get through the pregnancy better physically but also mentally!"
Those physical and mental benefits for expectant moms have been well documented. Just last year, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) published a paper stating that physical activity is "an important component of optimal health" for pregnant women. The ACOG experts also noted that "women who habitually engaged in vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or who were physically active before pregnancy can continue these activities during pregnancy and the postpartum period." In fact, studies have shown that women who exercise during pregnancy have decreased risk for gestational diabetes, a reduced chance of requiring a C-section, and faster postpartum recovery time.
To help ensure Peloton supported safe workouts for pregnant women — whether they were ultramarathoners a la Arzón or total newbies to exercise — Dr. Irobunda weighed in on the content from a medical perspective. "Ob-gyns giving their extra blessing to prenatal fitness content allows for those who are interested in starting or maintaining a fitness regimen while pregnant to have more confidence that the exercises and movements that they are doing will not harm their pregnancy," she says. "In reviewing prenatal fitness content, I'm always mindful of how the body is positioned to make sure that, for example, the pregnant athlete is making sure to keep the uterus from laying directly on the major blood vessels in the body or that there are modifications made to avoid a diastasis recti forming."
Otherwise known as the partial or complete separation of the "six-pack" muscles, diastasis recti is a common occurrence during and after pregnancy, affecting up to 60 percent of pregnant and postpartum women. Arzón discussed the topic in one of the Instagram stories chronicling her pregnancy fitness journey, along with other issues for expectant exercisers to be mindful of, including intraabdominal pressure (IAP), which is the amount of pressure in the abdominal cavity at any given time. (Too much pressure from bearing down or straining during exercise can lead to problems with the pelvic floor muscles and other complications.)
While there are minimal serious risks associated with prenatal exercise, Dr. Irobunda advises pregnant people to be extra mindful as they move. "Constantly checking in with yourself while working out can help avoid potential health and safety issues," she says. "For example, a lot of times when you're working out really hard, you can forget about your form. Every so often, more so than when you aren't pregnant, you should check in with your form to make sure that you are doing things correctly. When you're pregnant, your center of gravity is different, which may change your balance, so you need to make sure that you have things around you to maybe grab onto in case you become wobbly."
While correct form is an essential component of safe pregnancy workouts (or any workout for that matter), Arzón was loud and clear in her Instagram stories that one outdated piece of info is no longer required: the use of heart rate as a measure of safety for expectant moms. For the last two decades, ACOG has made it clear that it no longer recommends heart rate targets to assess exercise intensity for pregnant people but instead endorses "self-regulation and scales of perceived exertion." On a scale of 0 (nothing at all) to 10 (very, very heavy exercise), Arzón has advocated for fit women experiencing normal pregnancies to feel liberated to go as hard as an 8 or 9, as long they feel up for it (Arzón's scale differs slightly from the standard RPE scale, known as the Borg, which goes from 6-20 rather than 0-10, but the sentiment is similar: pregnant women should feel free to hit an 11-13 on the Borg as long as they feel fine). And according to Dr. Irobunda, that kind of intense training can actually help women prep for the ultimate endurance sport: labor.
"Labor means work," she says. "When you're pushing that baby into the world, you actually are using lots of your muscles – you're sweating, and you're controlling your breathing. It can be exhausting. Most times labor lasts for many hours, so much like an endurance sport, you have to keep your energy up and stay present and engaged during the whole process. Working out before and during pregnancy helps to condition you for that intense workout. Cardiovascularly, it helps increase your endurance. Performing exercises that improve the strength of your abdominal muscles and your pelvic floor muscles also help you generate all that strength you need to push that baby out!"
But the benefits of exercise for pregnant women aren't just physical. As ACOG pointed out, "physical activity also can be an essential factor in the prevention of depressive disorders of women in the postpartum period." Research has also shown that prenatal exercise may offer protection against perinatal mood disorders, which encompass the time before and during pregnancy, too.
"The perinatal period is actually the most vulnerable time even if you've never suffered from a mental health condition in your life," says Dr. Lakshmin. "We all have this image of the glowing mom who happily does it all -— but this is such a harmful narrative. I want women to know it's okay to seek help and support. I also want them to know that the best thing they can do for their families is to invest time in taking care of themselves. It's so easy to fall into the martyr-mode trap, where you are putting the needs of your kids or spouse ahead of your own. This is a recipe for resentment and heartache. While it's not easy to set those boundaries, doing so always pays off in the long run."
Through its prenatal content series and Arzón's personal pregnancy and motherhood chronicles, Peloton is intent on transforming the conversation around the role exercise plays in pregnancy and beyond.
"Women are warriors," Arzón. "I'm so proud to offer classes for the expecting mothers in the Peloton community, helping to make strength the standard."