Do You Know How to Use an Exercise Bike?

Chances are almost everyone has used an exercise (stationary) bike at least once. I would be willing to bet (if I bet, which I don’t) that most people do not know how to use one correctly. Physicians often tell their patients to get more exercise, and may even make specific suggestions that might include using an exercise bike. I would also be willing to bet that most of these physicians do not tell their patients how to use the bike, probably because they themselves don’t know how. So how should one use an exercise bike?

What’s so great about an exercise bike?

An exercise bike is an easy way for almost anyone to get a good workout that is “low impact.” What I mean by low impact is that the exercise does not require beating down one’s knees and hips as occurs with running. It is a good way for people to get exercise if they have upper extremity injuries that might limit some types of exercise and for people who might have difficulty with other low impact forms of exercise such as walking (e.g., foot problems). Exercise bikes are also cheap- one can spend a fortune on one, but used bikes are readily available and new ones can be found at reasonable prices. For those who are members of recreational facilities, tracking down an exercise bike should be easy. I wonder how many Americans actually have an old exercise bike in their basement, garage, or attic, just gathering dust?

What about bike specifics?

I personally have had little experience with recumbent bikes, but some people swear by them. Here I will focus on the more traditional upright stationary bikes. The keys to a good bike include a comfortable and adjustable seat, a mechanism to adjust the effort necessary to turn the pedals, good pedals which include a straps that fit over the feet (similar or identical to “toe clips” often found on mountain bikes) making the ride more comfortable and providing an exercise “bonus” of work when the pedal is going up as well as when it is going down and around. If the seat is not comfortable or if it is old and falling apart, you may be able to have a bike shop fit a seat from a regular bike (mountain bike seats are often very comfortable). The bike shop can also help you get better pedals or add straps if the bike does not have them. Bikes that have fancy computers to set exercise programs, monitor heart rate, distance “traveled,” calories burned, and so forth, are nice but not essential.

What’s next?

Let’s assume that you have a bike with the essentials as discussed above. The first step is to adjust the seat height. Sit on the bike and find the seat height that allows your foot (either) to rest horizontally on the pedal with only a very slight bend to the knee. This adjustment will allow you to pedal smoothly without having to raise up from the seat and without injuring your knees. The proper seat height adjustment is very important.

Next you need to adjust the handlebars so they are comfortable (on some bikes the handlebars are not adjustable, so just skip this step). Most people prefer to lean forward and grasp the handlebars rather than sitting strictly upright; people who read books when riding an exercise bike usually sit up fairly straight but I don’t think that’s a very comfortable position. Whatever works for you is just fine.

Ready to ride

Next, just start pedaling. The mechanism for adjusting the work of pedaling should be set low (on the fancy bikes one just punches in a work effort level). You should be able to pedal without much effort. Over 1-2 minutes, increase your pedaling speed to about 50-60 revolutions/minute (you should pick your left or right foot and count the number of times it goes completely around in 10 seconds- it should be about 10 revolutions. If you want to time things longer, feel free (e.g., 30 revolutions in 30 seconds). Your eventual goal is to spin the pedals at 70-90 revolutions/minute for most of the bike ride. Personally, I feel 75-80 revolutions is about right. It’s not so critical exactly what the revolution rate is but 100 revolutions per minute is too fast and 40 is way too slow unless you are way out of shape and want to gradually work up to full speed (the best approach).

How hard to pedal?

The tricky part is figuring how hard to pedal. What you need to aim for is a heart rate of about 60% of maximum after you have been at it for about 15 minutes. How does one do that? Well, you can calculate maximum heart rate as 220-age; then take 60% of that number as your target heart rate to assure an aerobic workout. For example if you are age 40 years, your calculated maximum heart rate is 220-40 = 180 beats/minute. Sixty percent of 180 is 108 beats/minute. So, you need to pedal with enough tension in the pedaling at the pedaling rate we have already discussed to keep you heart rate roughly in the 110-120 beats/minute range. If after 10-15 minutes of pedaling, you heart rate is 90 beats/minute, crank it up. These are just guidelines and what’s right is different for every person.

How long to pedal?

I usually ride for about 30 minutes. I warm up for about 5 minutes, gradually increasing the speed of the pedal rotation and the work of pedaling (on my old Schwinn, there is a dial that is connected to a cable that works a braking mechanism on the wheel). I ride at about 80 pedal revolutions/minute and at a heart rate of about 130 beats/minute (maybe a bit too fast for an old man like me). For the last 5 minutes of the ride, I increase the tension a bit and the pedal rotation speed a bit (to 90 rotations/minute) just to prove that I am a tough guy. Finally, I do a 2-3 minute warm-down, turning the pedalling tension way down and drastically slowing the pedal rotation. After 30 minutes of cycling you should be pretty sweaty unless you keep a fan blowing. Within 5-10 minutes, your heart rate should be back to normal (roughly 60-75 beats/minute). If not, you were doing a much harder workout than you should have been doing given your level of cardiovascular fitness.

A word of caution

Unless you know you are in great shape (cardiovascular-wise), check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program and pace yourself. You shouldn’t be having chest pain during the exercise or be extremely out of breath.

Gear

I completely forgot to discuss what to wear for your cycling adventures. I suggest regular biking shorts and maybe, biking tights under them. You want to be comfortable and do not want your inner thighs to get sore. As far as shoes go, I prefer to wear cycling shoes- not the weird Italian racing bike shoes, but rather, bike shoes designed for mountain bikers (many of these types of shoes come with optional gear to use the shoes with clip-in pedals). You can also use running shoes, but I like the cycling shoes because they have very firm soles where your feet sit on the pedals. You shouldn’t need to spend more than $50-60 and the shoes will last you 300 years. I wear thin wicking-type socks (fabrics such as wool, Cool-Max (TM), etc., but not cotton) and a grungy old tee shirt.

I also almost forgot the most important part- what do do while you are pedalling. I usually listen to music with headphones. I have recently rediscovered my thousands of old cassette tapes. They work fine- I keep the tape player in a little waist bag. Some people enjoy watching TV while they cycle. Some people listen to music and watch TV. Some people just pedal and think. Do whatever suits you.

How often to ride?

I have no specific recommendations regarding the frequency with which one should use their exercise bike. It really depends on whether the cycling is the major component of a person’s fitness plan, or just one of a variety of exercise options. In general, people should strive for at least 3, 30 minute exercise sessions/week- the U.S. government (I can’t remember which agency) now recommends that most adults exercise 60 minutes every day. This is not a very realistic recommendation (apparently, in the U.S. the average adult does no regular exercise and walks about 750 yards per day (that comes to about 3 miles per week). It’s pretty pathetic. Soon, we’ll come back to exercise as it relates to our current epidemics of obesity and diabetes.

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