Pedal power! Get back in the saddle and into great shape with your stationary bike

Spinning Instructor at Gym

FACE IT–RIDING A STATIONARY BIKE IN your bedroom can be about as exciting as … well … riding a stationary bike in your bedroom. Sure, when you bought it, you pictured a cozy fat-burning alternative to frigid walks in blustery winter weather. Now the bike is getting its own workout–buried under a load of laundry. What a waste: Riding a stationary bike is a superb way to shed fat fast while building lean muscle to boot. In fact, in a recent “With the Editor” column, Mark Bricklin reported on a Tufts University study in which a group of stationary cyclists–burning only 360 calories a day over 12 weeks–were able to lose a whopping 19 pounds of fat and gain 3 pounds of lean muscle (all without dieting!).

There’s hope, though, for you and your machine. Following are strategies to breathe new life into your bike routine and give yourself–especially your heart–a healthy workout without being bored to tears.

Pedal with heart

Fit woman working out at the gymOne powerful way to make time pass quickly during stationary biking also gives your ticker a boost: pulse monitoring. “Use the bike’s speed and resistance to change your heart rate and manipulate it to an ideal spot–then try to keep it there for 20 to 30 minutes,” says Michael Schreiber, D.O., medical director of Sports Medicine Associates at the Sports Club/LA in West Los Angeles.

“It becomes an interactive experience with your bike–like a vigorous form of biofeedback while also conditioning your heart and lungs.”

After a brief three-to five-minute warm-up, exercise harder to get your heart rate within the target-heart-rate zone. That zone falls anywere from 68 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is your age subtracted from 220.

To find your heart rate as your exercise, stop briefly and place the tips of your index and middle fingers (not your thumb) over your wrist. Count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by six to get your heart rate. But do it fast–your heart rate drops quickly when you stop exercising. If the number you calculated is 65 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, you’re doing fine.

If your heart rate is too low and you’re not feeling overstressed, kick up the pace. If it’s too high, you may need to slow things down. That’s where the boredom-bashing comes into play, says Dr. Schreiber. “By monitoring your heart rate and always trying to coax your heart into an ideal range, time passes faster. You’re playing a game with your body.” Having two variables to play with–changing the speed and turning up or down the specific levels of resistance your machine may provide–gives you different recipes to reach your ideal heart rate.

The target zone is simply a helpful guidepost. Because resting heart rate drops with improved fitness, you’ll have to work harder to reach that point. That’s cool–you’re just in better shape. But if you don’t want to bother with equations, you can do what feels comfortable. When you’re pedaling away, breathing should be deep and rapid, but you should still be able to talk while you exercise. If you can no longer speak, you’ve gone beyond that target heart range.

Program yourself for pedaling

spinningworkoutIdeally you’d like to get onto the exercise bike five times a week at a moderate pace. “That seems to be the magic threshold for changing heart-disease risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” says Ralph LaForge, exercise physiologist at the San Diego Cardiac Center Medical Group.

If it has been a while since you’ve been pedaling, though, you need to ease yourself back into the saddle first. Begin pedaling three days a week for the first four weeks. Start out doing 12 to 15 minutes the first few times. “You might even do two spins a day–eight or nine minutes in the morning, then repeat it in the afternoon or evening,” says LaForge. “That prepares your leg muscles for doing more as you become more fit.” Use the first few minutes of each workout as a warm-up, with a cool-down period at the end. You can pedal at a moderate speed, with little or no resistance, if your machine offers that option.

Over the course of three months, you can work up to 45 minutes (including warm-up and cool-down) a shot. After the first month, try four workouts per week for the next weeks. In the remaining weeks, work up to tackling five cycling sessions a week.

If your bike offers resistance options for pedaling, pick one that allows you to go 15 comfortable minutes. “You should break a sweat and feel like you’re working hard, but not so hard it feels like a struggle,” says LaForge. Remember, this is an aerobic exercise, not strength training for the legs.

Keep cool

The biggest mistake people make with indoor exercise is lack of proper cooling. Because you aren’t moving through the environment, you aren’t being cooled by air. That lack of ventilation can cause most people to overheat after just 20 minutes.

“Get a three-speed fan and correlate the speed directly to how hard you’re working,” says LaForge. For a warm-up, try low speed; for high speed, set it at a high clip.

If you can’t reach the fan from where you’re seated, just keep it at a constant level, targeting as much skin as possible. “Make it fresh air, too– keep the fan near a window,” says LaForge. This can keep body temperature about a degree cooler, which leads to a lower heart rate. “You can actually burn more calories by staying cooler because it can prolong your workout,” he says.

Get comfortable

Determined young woman working out at spinning class against fitness interface

Make sure your bike seat is adjusted properly. You know you’re at a proper seat height if on the down stroke your leg is almost but not completely extended, with a slight break in the knee, when you have the middle of your foot (not your toes) on the pedal.

If you have an uncomfortable seat, you can remedy that with a foam or sheepskin pad. While riding, you can also lift up off the seat for a few seconds now and again just to relieve pressure.

If the handlebars are adjustable, set them so you lean slightly forward–but not too much. “There’s a tendency to lean too much when you get tired, and that can lead to lower-back pain,” says Dr. Schreiber. Sit upright as though you’re on a regular bike. Don’t grip too tightly on the handlebars, either. That can numb your hands. If numbing still occurs, try some biking gloves.

Use boredom breakers

Young people  doing spinning on cycle bike

Riding a stationary bike needs more than motivation. It calls for an attentive kick in the cerebellum–mind-occupying activities that make indoor pedaling more bearable. Here are a few tips to keep you in the saddle and smiling–instead of laid out on the sofa groping for the remote.

  1. Do intervals. Once you’ve gotten into a steady pace, kick up the speed and spin faster for a half minute or even a minute. Then return to the original pace. Keep alternating speeds during the workout. It can break the monotony and burn calories to boot.
  2. Take a stand. Get an attachable reading stand so you can peruse the morning paper, a thick paperback or your spouse’s diary as you burn fat.
  3. Using big words. Try finding big-print books and magazines so you don’t have to bend forward to read, risking a backache.
  4. Listen up. If reading on a bike makes you dizzy (like reading in a car makes you queasy), try getting the masterpieces on audiotapes. That way you can still work on your mind as you work on your body. You can program your workout by chapters or “reread” the steamy parts to work up a better sweat.
  5. Keeping moving with the movies. Rent some of your favorite videos. Or tape episodes of your favorite soaps and catch them later while riding. If you want to get really creative, there are even a few videos available that provide tours through beautiful terrain or that allow you to race against other riders. Just position the bike near a television (or your stereo, for music) and pedal away.
  6. Make it scenic. If you have a window with a nice view of a busy street, park your bike facing it and people-watch, dog-watch, bird-watch or whatever-watch….If your bike is easily movable, take it outside, weather permitting.
  7. Tune in. A personal headphone stereo can help keep the mental beat flowing. Keep the volume low enough, however, to hear the phone, doorbell or comments from our envious, inactive relatives.
  8. Get a speaker phone. While sweating away, call your friends, your accountant, the Weather Channel, the Home Shopping Network …anyone who will listen to you. You’ll be amazed how this makes time fly, as well as how easy it is to annoy an entire populace.
  9. Pedal with a pal. If you belong to a gym, you can arrange a time to meet a friend there to ride. But if you’re at home, consider sharing a bike–doing light calisthenics while your pal pedals and vice versa.
  10. Sing! Sing! Hey–what’s more fun than riding a stationary bike? How about doing it as you bellow off-key renditions of Broadway show tunes?
  11. ‘Perspirate’ and dictate. A hand-held Dictaphone is great for letters, random thoughts, shopping lists or awful poetry you’d share with no one else.
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