If you're looking for a gentle yet challenging aerobic workout, an exercise bike is hard to beat. This type of workout is low impact, but rivals all the other cardio machines in the gym in terms of exercise intensity and calories burned.
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Riding a stationary bike is wonderful exercise for most people. This low-impact workout provides many benefits, including improved aerobic fitness, stronger muscles and bones, improved balance, and better mood and cognition. But the bike can also be as challenging as you want it to be, rivaling almost any other cardio machine in the gym.
Exercise Bike Effectiveness
When you compare a stationary bike to the other cardio machines in a gym, one of its biggest benefits is also the most obvious: Even when you work out at a high intensity, the bike doesn't produce any pounding on your joints at all.
Because of this, stationary cycling is an excellent cardio workout choice for anyone with joint problems, severe obesity, or any other physical condition that makes doing high-impact exercises uncomfortable or unsuitable.
That doesn't mean riding an exercise bike is always easy. Although the workout is low impact, you can adjust the bike's resistance to be as easy or difficult as you like — so it's simple to scale a stationary bike workout to suit your fitness level and desired exercise intensity.
That means riding a stationary bike is a great way to fulfill some or all of the 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend you get every week — or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, if you prefer.
In addition to helping you maintain a healthy weight, that level of regular aerobic exercise offers important health benefits too. The Mayo Clinic lists the ways aerobic exercise affects your body, including:
- Increased stamina, fitness and strength.
- Reduced risk, and improved management, of chronic health conditions.
- Improved cardiovascular fitness.
- Better mood.
- Improvements in cognitive function.
- A longer lifespan.
More Stationary Bike Benefits
The list of benefits continues: As Harvard Health Publishing points out, pedaling a stationary bike also builds stronger muscles throughout your lower body, including your glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors and calves.
Pedaling a bike also helps increase bone density in your lower body, although a stationary bike workout doesn't count as weight-bearing exercise — which can be an important criterion for people dealing with low bone density. Talk to your doctor if you're not sure whether you also need to be doing weight-bearing exercise for the sake of your bones.
Looking at things from another angle, part of the stationary bike's effectiveness is its relative comfort and ease of use. Although not every piece of exercise equipment will fit every body, most exercise bikes can be adjusted to accommodate almost any body size.
Stationary bikes also have a relatively low price tag and smaller footprint when compared to many other types of exercise equipment — which makes them a great choice for home use. If you have downstairs neighbors, they won't even know you're pedaling — whereas they'd be sure to notice the sound of repeated footfalls on a treadmill.
And finally, if you want a wider seat than you'll find on upright bikes, consider a recumbent bike. You'll find these models in many gyms and also for sale to use at home. They have a wider seat than you'd get on an upright bike, along with some back support, and also place you a bit lower to the ground, which may be reassuring to some.
Read more: The Best Indoor Bikes for At-Home Cycling Workouts
Ongoing Research Shows Other Benefits
Thanks to their versatility and relative accessibility, stationary bikes are often the subjects of scientific research — and science has turned up some more subtle benefits that might not be the first things you think of when pedaling a bike comes to mind.
For example, that stationary bike workout might also improve your gait and balance. This has been borne out by numerous small studies, mostly involving older adults or those in a rehabilitative setting.
For example, in a study of 24 women aged 65 or older — mostly notable because the subjects were defined by their age, not a medical condition — researchers found that exercising on a stationary bike generated significant improvements in both gait and balance, which in turn can help prevent falls. This study was published in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.
Stationary bike effectiveness isn't only about reaping the physical benefits of a workout — it also extends to your mood and your mind. A study published in the June 2013 issue of Psychology and Aging found that just 15 minutes of moderate-intensity stationary cycling produced notable improvements in both affect and cognitive performance.
Calories Burned on a Bike
According to Harvard Health Publishing, the stationary bike is also one of the most effective calorie burners in the gym. Per their estimates, a 155-pound person burns approximately 260 calories in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity stationary cycling. If you ramp that up to a vigorous intensity, you can look forward to burning about 391 calories in 30 minutes.
Although exercise intensity is one of the biggest determiners of how many calories you burn, body weight plays a role too. In general, if you weigh more, you'll burn more calories during the same workout. For example, if you weigh 185 pounds, Harvard Health Publishing estimates that you'll burn about 311 calories in 30 minutes of moderate cycling, or 466 calories in 30 minutes of vigorous cycling.
Read more: The Top 10 Calorie-Burning Cardio Workouts to Try
Gauging Your Cycling Intensity
One person's easy jaunt on the stationary bike is another's all-out sprint — so how can you tell if your stationary bike workout qualifies as "moderate" or "vigorous"? The Mayo Clinic provides the following clues as signals you're exercising at a moderate intensity:
- Your breath speeds up to the point that you can carry on a conversation, but you can't sing.
- You break into a light sweat after about 10 minutes of physical activity.
They also provide the following clues that signal your workout has reached a vigorous intensity:
- You break into a sweat after just a few minutes.
- Your breathing is so rapid and deep that you can only get a few words out at a time.
Most people can also use their heart rate to track exercise intensity, although some medications will interfere with this — talk to your doctor if you're not sure whether this method is appropriate for you.
The American Heart Association (AHA) identifies the target heart rate for moderate-intensity exercise to be about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, while vigorous-intensity physical activity is about 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate.
What's your maximum heart rate? As the AHA points out, it's often calculated as 220 minus your age in years. So if you're 40 years old, your maximum heart rate would be 180. But in a 2014 summary of research from the American College of Cardiology, researchers note that this method doesn't account for gender, and recommend the following adjustments:
- For men, your maximum heart rate is roughly 216 minus 93 percent of your age.
- For women 40 to 89 years old, your maximum heart rate is about 200 minus 67 percent of your age.
- The researchers didn't have enough data for women under 40.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- Mayo Clinic: "Exercise Intensity: How to Measure It"
- American Heart Association: "Know Your Target Heart Rates for Exercise, Losing Weight and Health"
- American College of Cardiology: "The Heart Responds Differently to Exercise in Men vs. Women"
- Psychology and Aging: "Exercise Holds Immediate Benefits for Affect and Cognition in Younger and Older Adults"
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Effect of Stationary Cycle Exercise on Gait and Balance of Elderly Women"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Top 5 Benefits of Cycling"
- Mayo Clinic: "Aerobic Exercise: Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need?"