Fitness Basics: The Exercise Bike Is Back

It's time for another look at an old fitness favorite.

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

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.)

Here are some questions to consider:

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.