Choosing an Exercise Bike
Whether you're an athlete rehabilitating a sore knee, a newbie just beginning an exercise regimen, or a fitness enthusiast who wants a cardio workout but prefers the comfort of home to a crowded gym, an exercise bike may be just what you're looking for. Exercise bicycles, aka stationary bikes, offer a low-impact workout, can improve cardiovascular health, and can help you lose weight. They are far less costly than a gym membership, and the convenience factor increases the chances you'll actually use the bike. With so many on the market, many offering a slew of bells and whistles, the trick is finding the right exercise bike for you. We've examined a ton of reviews and looked at dozens of models to find indoor exercise bikes for $400 or less that offer sturdy designs, good electronic features, and a smooth, quiet ride.
Exercise Bike BrandsFamiliar names in the exercise bike market include NordicTrack, Nautilus, ProForm, Precor, Sole Fitness, Life Fitness, Schwinn, and Diamondback. Many of these makers offer both commercial and home products at multiple points along the price spectrum. Some perhaps lesser-known brands that claim a following on the budget end of the price scale are Sunny Health & Fitness, Marcy, and Exerpeutic (a subsidiary of Paradigm Health & Wellness). For users willing to pay thousands for a high-end bike for their homes, Keiser and Peloton have amassed huge followings due to their reputations for quality and innovation.
Pricey vs. Cheap Exercise BikesPricier exercise bikes are often more solidly built, look snazzier, and sport plenty of extras, from onboard heart rate monitors and built-in data/entertainment screens to computerized resistance control and thousands of customized workouts. But staying healthy and motivated doesn't have to mean spending a mint. It's equally possible to get a good workout with a cheap exercise bike -- and some experts actually recommend an exercise bike that's inexpensive, especially if you're a newbie and not sure whether this particular cardio routine will best suit you. The most important thing, they say, is to get up and get moving, and even with a cheap exercise bike, a console with a workout tracker that keeps tabs on your progress is pretty common. (And nowadays, there are many apps and fitness trackers that can monitor cycling workouts and tap support communities to keep you going.)
After searching through the many brands and models out there, we found several high-quality, low-cost exercise bikes that should help you reach your fitness goals. For our featured picks, we examined two types: recumbent bikes, which offer back support, and upright bikes, which mimic traditional bicycles.
Recumbent Exercise BikesA recumbent bike lets you sit back while pedaling with your legs out front and may provide a less strenuous cardio workout. They are often recommended for people who suffer from lower back pain or joint problems, seniors, and novices. For those who think a recumbent bike will best suit their fitness needs, we've found two that are extremely popular with both experts and consumers for their performance and value.
First on our list is the Schwinn 230 (starting around $350). Almost identical to the higher-end Schwinn 270, which costs about $100 more, this cheaper cousin still packs a lot of perks, including large dual LCD display, numerous workout programs, computer-controlled resistance levels, and grip heart rate sensors. A more basic option is the entry-level Marcy ME-709 (starting around $122). While you won't get fancy programs and built-in USB ports with this bargain-priced model, many users feel that the eight resistance levels, simple display, and compact, easily maneuverable frame are perfectly suited for low-profile use at home and even in front of a TV.
Upright Exercise BikesAn upright bike looks more like an actual bicycle and offers more of a whole-body exercise. Our favorite is the Schwinn 170 (starting around $400), a features-packed and comfort-focused cycle that offers a large adjustable cushioned seat, forearm rests, and oversized pedals. Our runner-up, the Exerpeutic 250XL (starting around $149), is the little bike that could. Its sturdy frame allows it to carry a weight capacity of 300 pounds, even with its compact, foldable design.
Indoor Cycling BikesIndoor Cycles, or spin bikes, are a type of upright bicycle frequently used in gym exercise classes and a popular option among die-hard cyclists who use them for indoor training. There are slight differences between typical upright bikes and indoor cycles in terms of the basic mechanics and features offered, but the primary difference is that an indoor cycle more closely mimics the experience of riding a regular bike, allowing riders to have a similar posture and get a more intense workout by pedaling while out of the saddle.
As our top pick for indoor cycling, we've chosen the Sunny Health & Fitness SF-B1002 (starting around $290). Thanks to the belt-driven flywheel, a rare feature for a mid-range spin bike, workouts are sure to be a lot quieter. The Bladez Fitness Echelon GS (starting around $400) is another quality indoor cycle, with a sturdy frame and four-way adjustable handlebars. While some might be tempted by the less expensive yet fairly fierce-looking Marcy Club Revolution XJ-3220 (starting around $259), some of the brand's corner cutting seems to irk reviewers more than it does with Marcy's cheap recumbent model. This chain-driven bike offers a relatively quiet ride, and those who prefer an old-school feel that's closer to a conventional bicycle may be fine eschewing some of the smoothness associated with a belt drive. But for the price, this bike's limited features and incredibly uncomfortable seat put off many users.
Other Exercise Bike TypesAlthough we focused on more traditional exercise bikes for our top picks, consumers looking for an all-in-one workout that also pays attention to the upper body might consider a dual-action exercise bike. This type of bike has handlebars that move, engaging arms, shoulders, pectorals, and lats in addition to leg and abdominal muscles. Dual-action air bikes, also known as fan bikes, kick up the calorie-burning by using fans in their front wheels to create wind resistance. These bikes can range from dirt cheap to extremely expensive. Schwinn's Airdyne exercise bikes such as the Airdyne AD6 (starting around $500) are popular with home users. Another option for a 2-in-1 workout is an elliptical exercise bike. Models like the ProForm Hybrid Trainer (starting around $350) can be used as a recumbent exercise bike or shift to a standing position for a full-body elliptical workout.
For consumers who would like to exercise at the office, a desk exercise bike (not to be confused with an exercise bike with desk attached, though these exist) might be a good option. We found a mini exercise bike that can be used under a desk and is quiet enough not to disturb co-workers. The Sunny Health and Fitness SF-B0418 Magnetic Mini (starting around $85) offers a smooth pedaling experience, can be used for upper and/or lower body, and is especially popular with people who've recently had surgery and wish to begin a fitness program to help with their recovery.
Another option: You can always convert an outdoor bicycle you already own into a stationary bike with the purchase of a special stand. Exercise bike trainers are small, easy to set up, can be very cheap, and can be used on almost any bikes. (Mountain bikes require a special stand.) Prices on Amazon range from as low as $44 to upwards of $600.
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Exercise Bike Reviews: What We Considered
Fitness and consumer product review sites such as Top Fitness Mag, Consumer Reports, TopTenReviews, BestReviews, and Reviews.com regularly test and review the top exercise bikes, but the most extensive feedback comes from consumers who buy and use the exercise equipment at home. Most exercise bike reviews and recommendations from consumers appear on the websites of large retailers such as Amazon and Walmart. Reviews most frequently address assembly, as well as ease of use and comfort. Most indicate that riders are satisfied with our top picks despite occasional operational and mechanical flaws.
ErgonomicsA comfortable and satisfying fit is paramount; without that, you're unlikely to be consistent with your workout. To ensure a good fit and allow for peak performance, a good cheap stationary bike should be height-adjustable. That is, you should be able to raise and lower the seat in order to pedal smoothly and comfortably. A seat that's too high will force you to overextend your knees and ankles; with a seat that's too low, your knees will hit the handlebars -- particularly if the seat cannot be adjusted horizontally. Ideally, the handlebars should be adjustable as well; vertical adjustment is common, but some handlebars can be adjusted in four directions, which is important for those with shorter arms.
Recumbent and upright bikes offer different benefits that consumers may want to keep in mind too. For instance, the back support on a recumbent bike reduces pressure on the hands and wrists. A low center of gravity allows these bikes to pick up speed more easily. Consumers who choose recumbents often do so because of common problems including pain or numbness in the rear end or crotch when riding upright bikes; wrist and hand problems such as pain, nerve trauma, or carpal tunnel syndrome; and neck, shoulder, and back pain. For some men, issues of impotence and/or prostate enlargement may be a consideration.
An upright bike provides a workout more consistent with outdoor riding, as it positions the rider similarly and targets more muscle groups. Recumbent bikes work primarily glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles. Spin bikes may prove the most uncomfortable for some users, due to the more hunched position. Spin workouts are probably not the best for those suffering from knee problems, due to the higher speed of repetitions and because they entail lots of pedaling while standing.
Seat ComfortIn our research, we found that feedback on the comfort of exercise bike seats is highly subjective. Many consumers report that a seat caused some pain initially, but it lessened after a few additional rides. This might be the case if you're an exercise bike newbie or have not ridden in a number of years. But even if a particular model overwhelmingly positive reviews regarding the seat, you personally may not find it comfortable.
Nevertheless, some common factors affect whether a specific bike seat will make for a more or less rocky ride. Often, the most comfortable seats are padded and oversize. A backrest (on recumbent bikes and some upright bikes) offers additional support and eases pressure on the rear end.
Spin bikes tend to have much narrower seats than other upright bikes, which some people find uncomfortable, but they can be used for workouts in a standing position, which means riders needn't be subjected to constant pressure on the nether regions. Regardless, a seat that doesn't quite suit needn't be a deal breaker. Many users say they've simply added gel covers to existing seats or replaced the worst offenders altogether.
ConsoleFrom beginners to experienced pros, most riders appreciate an LCD screen that tracks fitness stats. Some bikes also come with preset exercise programs that help orient workouts around specific fitness goals, such as fat-burning, cardio, or interval training. The best bikes can also pair (preferably wirelessly) with popular fitness apps, such as MyFitnessPal, GoogleFit, Apple Health, and MapMyRun/Ride for added workout options and advanced tracking capabilities. Some even provide users the option to bike through virtual landscapes and share rides with friends in real time.
Even on a cheap exercise bike with a bare-bones console, being able to visually monitor speed, time, distance, and calories burned provides incentive to keep moving. A heart rate monitor in the hand grips, or the ability to pair the bike with a telemetry strap, is a must-have feature for some workout buffs, and a few affordable exercise bikes fill the bill. Just don't believe all the stats that are displayed. We read more than a few reports from slightly irritated users who insist that the readouts, especially for metrics like calories burned, pulse rate, and heart rate, aren't particularly accurate. Moreover, like any electronic component, the console is susceptible to malfunctions -- and repairs can be pricey. If an impressive screen with readouts that truly reflect your progress is important to you, be prepared to pay up for a higher-end model.
ResistanceOn an exercise bike, the intensity of the workout depends in large part on the resistance in the pedals. The higher the resistance, the more your heart and muscles are forced to work. Bikes with multiple resistance settings help riders decide how hard (or not) they want to work and kick up the resistance as their strength improves. Many cheap exercise bikes require manual adjustment, via a knob that is turned to make the ride tougher or easier. For riders who prefer interval workouts, changing the resistance level throughout the session to keep things interesting, it may be worth spending a bit more for electronic adjustment.
The type of resistance varies among exercise bikes. The best models most commonly offer magnetic resistance, which controls how freely the flywheel rotates with magnets that are moved closer and farther away. Other bikes rely on some form of contact with the wheel (brakes or felt pads) to create resistance via friction. On a fan bike, as mentioned above, resistance is generated by the air coming from the spinning wheel.
The size of a bike's flywheel also affects the level of resistance. Spin bikes, which strive to mimic the resistance riders would face in an uphill stretch, tend to have heavier flywheels than other types of exercise bikes.
StorageThe more compact a bike is, the easier it is to store. Upright bikes are smaller and lighter than recumbents and take up less floor space. A foldable model may be an ideal option for apartment dwellers or users with small homes, although the inconvenience of setting it up and taking it down may deter some people from sticking with their exercise routine. Most of the bikes we researched also include wheels to make them more portable, whether for better positioning in front of a TV or getting the bike out of the room or into a corner when not in use. Just keep in mind that transport may not be as easy in practice as in theory: The longer lines of recumbent bikes can make them more difficult to move around corners and through doorways, and you'll certainly be toting more than 50 pounds. Although spin bikes have a smaller footprint, they tend to be on the heavier side due to their weighted flywheels and additional stability requirements; one of the models we chose weighs a hefty 115 pounds. Mini cycles, prized for their portability, typically weigh about 20 pounds, or even less, and can be stored under a desk or tucked away in a closet.
AssemblyIn general, most of our selections receive positive reviews regarding ease of assembly. Most should take less than an hour to put together (although they may require two sets of hands). With some, a majority of the work is done before customers open the box. Problems setting the proper tension on the belt and getting the pedals threaded correctly seem to be the most common complaints. Bikes with a lot of electronic components often present their own share of difficulty with setup, and we saw a few reports of buggy consoles and error messages appearing.
NoiseA well-designed cheap stationary bike -- particularly one with a belt drive and magnetic resistance -- provides quiet, smooth operation at all intensity levels and speeds. The noise from pedaling and spinning is somewhat subjective, but a good test is whether you can easily listen to music, carry on a conversation, or watch TV while riding. A majority of stationary bike reviews say this piece of home exercise equipment is fairly quiet. One notable exception: Air bikes are notoriously loud, with their cranking fans and the resulting wind (but you'll probably be working too hard to be watching a show at the same time anyway!).
DurabilityMany consumers review products within the first few months of use, so it's hard to predict how well the top exercise bikes hold up to multiple users or years of wear and tear. Even if you're not spending a fortune on a commercial-grade machine, you don't want to end up with an expensive clothes rack after just a few months. We found at least some reports of breakage, odd noises, and related issues for most of the top stationary bikes we researched. On the whole, though, our picks seem sturdy and relatively durable as long as users don't push the maximum weight limit (usually 275 or 300 pounds).
Warranties vary widely on the exercise bikes we researched, from a short 90 days to a lifetime warranty on the frame for one model. Coverage also tends to differ according to the components, with mechanical and electrical systems carrying shorter warranties. In general, users say you get what you pay for, so be prepared to invest a bit more if you're looking for a machine that's going to stand the test of time. On the other hand, on more expensive bikes with fancier electrical components, there's a greater chance of failure.