The Benefits of Stationary Biking
Riding a stationary bike is one of the most effective workouts for arthritic joints. Here’s how to cycle safely.
By Sharon Liao
Want a workout that burns calories, strengthens muscles and can help ease arthritis symptoms? Hop in a stationary bike saddle. “Stationary biking is an ideal low-impact exercise for people with arthritis,” says physical therapist Jessica Schwartz, founder of PT2Go in New York City and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association.
It’s also safe and convenient. Unlike outdoor cycling, you don’t have to worry about the weather, bumps on the road, a steep hill or if you have compromised balance. “You can also add resistance slowly, so you can gradually build up your strength,” says Schwartz.
Biking gets your legs moving through their range of motion. This encourages the production of synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints, says Schwartz. It also builds muscles in your core and legs. “When these muscles are stronger, they better support the joints and relieve some of the pressure,” says Sheena Alva, a physical therapist with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
That’s why riding regularly can help you move easier. According to a 2021 review published in Clinical Rehabilitation, exercising on stationary bikes lessened pain and improved function in people with knee osteoarthritis (OA). Another study found that people with rheumatoid arthritis who trained on indoor bikes as part of a workout program strengthened their muscles and reduced disease activity after six months.
Ready to Ride
Want to start pedaling? First, talk to your health care provider or a physical therapist. Then consider these steps to ride safely.
1. Choose the right bike. There are different kinds of stationary bikes, but most fall into these categories.
- Upright bike: These bikes are similar to outdoor bikes. They have smaller seats, and the pedals are beneath your body. You lean forward to hold on to the handles. “This engages your entire body,” says Alva. “But it can be uncomfortable for people with back, shoulder or wrist issues.”
- Recumbent bike: These bikes feature wider seats with a back rest, and the pedals are in front of your body. Recumbent bikes are more stable and comfortable, so they’re a better option for people with balance or mobility issues, says Schwartz.
- Spin bike: These are a kind of upright bike with lower handlebars. They also have a flywheel that allows you to stand up and pedal. Some are equipped with interactive screens with instructors. These classes are fun and motivating, but you need to recognize your limits, says Alva. “Where people get into trouble is when they push themselves too hard.”
2. Check your form. Riding an upright bike? Adjust the seat so that it’s roughly hip height and you can comfortably reach the handlebars. While pedaling, keep a slight bend in the knee to avoid overextending it.
Strap your shoes into the pedals or consider clip-in bike shoes. “In a full revolution, you want to push down and pull up,” says Schwartz. “This works the front and back sides of your legs equally.” Only pushing can overexert the quadriceps and lead to a flare.
3. Start small. Aim to ride 20 minutes per day, three to five days a week. “You don’t have to do it all at once,” says Schwarz. “You can hop on for five minutes at a time.” Keep your pace slow and don’t add any resistance at first. “You don’t even have to turn the bike on or do a full revolution,” she says. If you have a limited range of motion, push the pedal as far as comfortable and bring it back.
You’ll still reap benefits. Research shows that low-intensity stationary biking is just as effective at easing pain and increasing fitness for people with knee osteoarthritis as tougher. high-intensity cycling workouts. After you’re comfortable on the bike, gradually increase your speed. Then work on upping the resistance.
4. Know when to back off. If you have a sharp or shooting pain, stop cycling. Also track your pain on a scale of zero to 10 before and after your ride. If the pain increases by more than two points, you’re pushing yourself too hard. “Take two days off to recover,” says Schwartz. Then decrease your effort by 50% the next time you get back on the bike.
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