Fitness Basics: The Exercise Bike Is Back
Remember the exercise bike? It was popular at gyms and for home use long before many of today’s glitzy, high-tech exercise gadgets were invented. Maybe you even have one, stashed in the attic and serving as a rack for out-of-season clothing.
But if you’re ready to get serious about getting fit, it may be time to dust off your trusty (if not rusty) steed.
When you’re starting an exercise program, the key is finding something you enjoy and that’s easy to do. That’s what makes the stationary bike a great choice, particularly for the novice exerciser or someone with back, knee, or joint problems that make running or walking more difficult.
“A stationary bike is very easy on the joints,” says Kim Eskola, MS, assistant fitness director at Little Rock Athletic Club in Little Rock, Ark. For a beginner, she says, “it’s also easy to use a bike,” compared with, for example, a treadmill or elliptical machine.
Further, if you’re a fair-weather exerciser who lets heat, cold, or rain inhibit your workout, the stationary bike gives you fewer excuses not to exercise. “Because it’s indoors, you don’t have to worry about inclement weather,” says exercise physiologist Kelli Calabrese.
Another point in its favor: If you don’t belong to a gym, you can use one at home.
Stationary bike enthusiast Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, says there are many advantages to having a bike in the house.
“I can do it watching television,” says Magee, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic’s “Recipe Doctor.” “I can do it at night, when it’s dark, when it’s raining or cold. It’s a great way to burn calories and fat stores, and it’s a good oxygen boost.”
Though not a beginning exerciser herself, Magee says the stationary bike is an excellent choice for those who are new to exercise.
“For many of my friends that are halfway motivated and are beginner exercisers, I think it’s a great place to start. You’re working hard, but not so hard that you can’t be entertained at the same time.”
Before You Buy a Bike
Before you buy a stationary bike, do your homework because the options can be overwhelming. Some things to consider:
- Do you want an upright bike or a recumbent style (the type you pedal from a reclined position)?
- Do you need a small manual bike because you have limited space, or do you have room for a programmable electronic one?
- Should you buy new or used?
- What do you want to spend?
First, decide what you will use the bike for — as your main exercise source, one of several aerobic activities, or just a rainy-day alternative. Then, determine how much room you have to spare and what your budget allows.
Next, do some research. Ask friends or trainers at your gym for their recommendations. You may also want to check out Consumer Reports or other impartial reviews. Check with local equipment retailers — from department stores to fitness suppliers — about the kind of bike you should get, based on your needs. (Keep in mind that electronic bikes with program modes offer more workout variety but usually take up more space, require more maintenance, and cost considerably more than their manual counterparts.)
How much should you spend? A stationary bike can cost from a hundred dollars to a couple of thousand, depending on its features. Experts suggest buying something within your price range that offers the stability, convenience, and control you desire. But don’t overspend — particularly if you’re not sure you’ll stick with a cycling program.
Eskola recommends buying from a local fitness equipment dealer, who can offer a warranty, service contract, and more assistance in operating the bike than a chain department or discount store. She also says, “You get what you pay for,” so choose a bike made by a reputable company. Spending $700 to $800, she says, will give you a great bike that will last.
“I definitely suggest you get one that has some options,” Eskola says. “As you get better, you’re going to want to upgrade.”
However, Magee is perfectly happy with a manual stationary bike she bought for $300. At the time, she thought that was a lot, but she has since decided it was worth it.
Should you get a used bike? If you belong to a gym, ask staffers to notify you when the gym upgrades its bikes. Many health clubs will sell their used stationary bikes to members at minimal cost. Even a bike that the club used for spinning classes might work for you: They are stable and small, and because they operate with belts or chains, they simulate the feeling of an outdoor bike.
You can also look in the classified ads or ask local retailers about used and reconditioned bikes. Talk to friends as well, says Calabrese.
Can you convert your outdoor bike? If you already have an outdoor bike, says Calabrese, consider buying a cycle trainer or set of rollers. Trainers essentially let you convert an outdoor bike into a stationary one by elevating and mounting the back wheel and removing the front wheel. Rollers are for more experienced riders because you have to balance your back wheel on them to ride. Both are easy to store when not being used.
Should you go recumbent? Recumbent bikes, which became popular about a decade ago, tend to be favored by seniors or those needing a rehabilitation tool. “They’re comfortable and non-impact,” says Calabrese.
But don’t mistake that for easier, she warns. “When you’re upright, you’ve got weight and gravity on your side. When you’re lying back (recumbent), you have to do almost more work to turn the crank.”
Whatever bike you choose; make sure you feel comfortable with it. Try it out in the store, with the shoes you’ll be wearing. And ride for more than a few seconds to make sure it stays comfortable. You may even ask the retailer for a trial period to test the bike in your own environment.
The nice thing about having a stationary bike at home, says Magee, is the convenience and freedom. She loves to hop on her bike to watch the 30-minute sitcom Will & Grace. She tries to get through the entire show, commercials and all, before getting off.
“I’ve literally done (my workout) with my nightie on sometimes,” says Magee.
Calabrese is not opposed to the idea of watching television or reading a magazine for distraction, though she concedes your workout may not be as intense. “The research on reading or watching television while cycling shows that the intensity tends to be lower,” she says, “but people tend to work out longer.”
Watching I Love Lucy reruns isn’t the only way to motivate yourself, says Calabrese. She suggests:
- Finding a partner — a friend, spouse or significant other — to exercise with. This will give you accountability and help you stick with a routine.
- Journaling. Write down your workouts a month in advance, or at least a week ahead, says Calabrese. If you have to miss one, reschedule it immediately.
- Having a purpose to every workout. “One day could be strength, another recovery, another speed,” she says. “Use different programs if the bike has them.” Or integrate 10 to 15 minutes on the bike with some strength training, she says. Use the bike as your warm-up and cool down on a strength-training day, and before you know it, you’ve gotten in 10 minutes on the bike on an off day.
- A change of scenery. Though it might be 40 degrees and raining outside, you can be transported to the South of France with the click of a button. You can buy cycling videos that offer beginner to advanced rides with scenery and a variety of challenges you can see right in front of you, says Calabrese. Collage Video offers these videos through its catalog and Web site.
Eskola recommends that people who are new to exercise or to stationary bikes start with very modest goals. “Just getting on the bike and going for 10 minutes a day and gradually increasing the time — that’s all a beginner’s goal should be,” she says.
And don’t despair if your motivation wanes.
“Even for those who are active, it’s hard to exercise at home sometimes,” says Eskola. “I had a bike at home and I didn’t use it. I’d go out for a run but I didn’t get on that bike.”
If you know you’re likely to do the same, instead of buying a bike, join a health club and use its bikes. Do whatever it takes to get and keep you moving.
Ready, Set, Go!
Whether you use a stationary bike at home or the gym, Calabrese offers these tips for getting the most from your workout:
- Make sure the bike fits you properly. Talk to the merchant from whom you bought your bike, someone at a bicycle store, or a trainer at your gym to be sure the seat height is correct and you’re not sitting too far away from the handlebars.
- Keep your upper body relaxed, shoulders away from the ears.
- Sit lightly on your seat, using your abdominals to support your back.
- Know your equipment and how to be safe. Learn how to adjust the intensity and change program options.
- Start slowly. Build up to longer or more intense workouts.
- Have the right gear: Buy a pair of padded shorts or a gel seat for added comfort.