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. 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. As with regular bikes, you can always add a padded seat cover to increase comfort.
- 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 their extra cost.
Know before you go
What type of indoor cycling do you want to do? 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, the type of bike used in group bike classes in gyms 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 real bike too -- with the rider above the pedals -- but you can't stand on the pedals to simulate racing or climbing as you can on the type of indoor bike that's used in group classes.
Test drive the bike first. Experts recommend trying out different models before you purchase an exercise bike, if possible. "Make sure the bike fits you properly," says exercise physiologist Kelli Calabrese in a WebMD.com article. 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.