What the best exercise bikes have

  • Quiet resistance. For adding tension, experts say magnetic systems are the best because they are quieter and more durable. Well-made belt and chain-drive bikes can also offer an effective workout, but tend to be louder, so keep that in mind if you plan to listen to music or watch TV as you work out.
  • Well-calibrated resistance levels. The best exercise bikes offer a broad range of tension settings, challenging users of all levels from beginner to advanced/professional.
  • Workout programs. A top-of-the-line exercise bike will include built-in programs to add variety and more challenges to your workout. Some models allow users to customize the workout with their own goals.
  • Heart rate monitor. Many exercise bikes include a contact monitor built into the hand grip, but the best models can also link to a separate chest-strap monitor for more accurate results. Precise heart rate monitors can help you maintain optimum intensity during your workout or push you to train even harder. Top models will typically include the chest strap. A very few exercise bikes have heart-rate control programs that will work with the monitors to vary your workout level to keep your heart rate within a preset range.
  • Easy-read display. The computer screen should clearly show statistics such as distance, time, speed and calories burned. The best computers have a backlit display for low-light conditions, with a screen large enough to show all the information at once.
  • Comfortable, adjustable seat and handlebars. The best exercise bikes use adequate padding and a comfortable design, with enough adjustments to achieve an ideal fit. Some find bicycle-style seats somewhat or completely uncomfortable. Recumbent exercise bikes usually have a wide, more comfortable seat as well as built-in back support.
  • Durability. Even a less expensive stationary bike should be well made and feel solid when pedaling. Look at things such as weight capacity and warranty terms for indications of a sturdy exercise bike.
  • Warranty. The best brands cover their stationary bikes for at least two to three years on the major moving parts, and cover labor costs for one year. Frame warranties are longer -- with lifetime coverage on the very best exercise bikes. Experts say extended warranties generally aren't worth the extra cost.

Know before you go

Do you want an upright, indoor or a recumbent exercise bike? If you have joint or back trouble, the reclined position of a recumbent bike is strongly recommended. If you want to most closely mimic the experience of riding a bicycle outdoors, an indoor bike -- often called a spin bike -- is the way to go. Those are built to allow users to do things like stand on the pedals and lean forward for greater speed or to tackle "virtual" inclines. Classic upright bikes put users in the same seating position as a spin bike -- with the user above the pedals -- but are more suitable for those that seek a good, but less intense work out.

Test-drive the bike first. Experts recommend trying out different models before you purchase an exercise bike. "Make sure the bike fits you properly," says exercise physiologist Kelli Calabrese. She recommends getting help from the merchant or a trainer "to be sure the seat height is correct and you're not sitting too far away from the handlebars."

What are your fitness goals? Choose an exercise bike that will best help you reach your fitness goals. For example, if you need help tracking your intensity and progress, look for a model that tracks distance, speed and calories, and includes a built-in heart rate monitor.

How much space do you have? Before you purchase something as large as a stationary bike, you should know where you plan to use it. Measure the available space, and don't forget to measure your ceiling height; upright exercise bikes add 6 to 12 inches to your overall height. Also factor in the weight of the bike. If it's light enough, you may be able to use the bike in an open space and then move it into storage. Some exercise bikes fold up and can be put away between uses.

Elsewhere in this Report:

Best Reviewed Exercise Bikes: What's the difference between upright, indoor (or spin), and recumbent exercise bikes? Editors offer insight and name top models and budget-friendly options

Best Recumbent Exercise Bike: If you suffer from back problems, or just find a standard bicycle seat to be a literal pain in the rear, a recumbent exercise bike could be the ticket to a comfortable but very effective workout. We look at the best choices.

Best Indoor Bicycle: Do you dream of racing up and down the French Alps in the Tour de France, but don't have the time to get away? Indoor spin bikes replicate the feel of bicycle racing to provide the most intense exercise.

Best Upright Exercise Bicycle: Classic upright exercise bikes are still the top choice of many looking for an ideal piece of exercise equipment. They are comfortable and affordable.

Our Sources: These are the expert and user sources we consulted in finding which exercise bikes please their owners, and which are most likely to disappoint. They are listed in order from most helpful to least.

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