The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Indoor Cycling

With a new high-tech stationary bike dropping almost every day, indoor cycling is having a moment that’s here to stay. Here’s how to start your own routine and reap the major health and fitness benefits of cycling.

With countless indoor cycling studios closed across the nation and nearly everyone avoiding their local gyms due to COVID-19 concerns, it’s only natural that so many new at-home stationary bikes have been staking their claim on the market. From Peloton’s new Bike+ to SoulCycle’s launch of an at-home bike, interest in cycling has seen a major spike since the start of the pandemic.

But, as any dedicated cyclist knows, there’s a lot more to the sport than flashy indoor bikes with on-demand, interactive workouts. Cycling is one of the best forms of cardio you can do, especially long-term. “Cycling is non-weight-bearing, so it reduces the risk of injuries due to wear and tear on your joints, particularly your knees,” says Robert Mazzeo, Ph.D., associate professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Knees are commonly the first joints in the body to show signs of aging, so it’s important to take care of them over your lifetime with healthy, gentle forms of cardio, such as cycling, he explains.

With that in mind, if you’re jumping on the bike for the first time, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor first. That way, you can implement any specific recommendations. Once you get the all-clear, here are a few ways you can expect your body and mind to change when you start cycling.

What to Expect When You First Jump On the Bike

The first time you start cycling, whether at home or at a group exercise class, can be intimidating. Oftentimes there are clipless pedals, and a million configurations to the seat height and handlebar depth.

For a general rule of thumb, you want your seat height to be at hip-bone height when standing next to the bike and your handlebars to be even with your seat or a nudge higher. “A common mistake people make is they jack their handlebars very high and their seat really low, and that’s not going to allow them to engage their core,” says Maddy Ciccone, a master instructor at SoulCycle in Boston.

It’s common for someone new to cycling to want to ride as often as they can, as long as they can, as intensely as they can. Thanks to the release of feel-good endorphins when you exercise, that “high” you’re feeling might mitigate the impact of stress and pain you feel in your body. But if you’re trying to do too much, it could be a recipe for injury.

Instead of going all out, focus on frequency first, suggests Matt Wilpers, former NCAA athlete, cycling coach, and Peloton instructor. “I like to start my athletes at (at least) 3 times a week, for 30 minutes at a time, consistently for 4-6 weeks,” he says.

You’ll automatically start burning more calories. “Every time you exercise, your body composition [the amount of fat your body has compared to muscles, bones, water, and organs] changes — you slowly start to replace fat with muscle,” explains Wilpers. “Muscle is a metabolically active tissue, which means it burns calories instead of storing them.” On average, a 30-minute cycling sesh can help you burn anywhere between 200-450 calories, if not more, depending on your weight and speed.

What to Expect After One Month of Regular Cycling

After a month of consistent cycling, your body has likely adapted enough to the bike to start progressively cranking up the intensity. “Within a month, you can start increasing your effort about 10 percent every 2-3 weeks,” says William Bryan, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic surgeon at Houston Methodist Orthopedics & Sports Medicine.

Since your stamina and endurance have also probably improved by this point, that means it’s time to shift from focusing on frequency to duration, says Wilpers. He recommends lengthening your original 30-minute cycling sessions to be 45 minutes to an hour instead.

You’ll start noticing leaner muscles. Cycling is endurance training by nature, so it engages slow-twitch muscles, aka fibers that are fatigue-resistant and focused on sustained smaller movements. That means you probably won’t greatly increase muscle mass (unless you’re consistently riding uphill and sprinting); rather, you’ll develop lean, toned muscles, particularly in your quads and glutes, explains Wilpers. “This is called training specificity,” adds Mazzeo. “The muscle fibers in your legs that you’re recruiting that are getting the most stimulus will considerably get stronger.”

You’ll also be ready to start cross-training, which means you’ll be better protected against injury. “The more you demand from your body, the more the small things start to matter,” says Wilpers. Cross-training may not directly impact your cycling performance, but it builds up resilience to injury, he notes. “In cycling, everything stems from the hips and pelvis, so you want to have good hips and pelvic stability. In cycling, you’re often moving in a static plane forward or backward, so [with cross-training workouts], you have to think about your abductors [the muscle group running along the lateral side of the thigh that helps your legs move and rotate at the hip joint] and adductors [the muscle group running from your pubic bone to your femur along the inside of your legs].”

You might notice a plateau in your progress, but that also means your body’s getting more efficient. After roughly six weeks of cycling, it’s common to plateau a bit, which exercise physiologists call a “base” in your training. “Your body will have gotten more efficient, and you’re able to produce more power for fewer heartbeats per minute, so then you can start doing max heart rate/max effort work,” says Dr. Bryan.

The Long-Term Benefits of Indoor Cycling

After several months of consistently hopping on the bike, you probably feel like a pro. Keep doing your thing, but don’t forget to check in with yourself, both physically and mentally. Stay in tune with any physiological changes you notice, and don’t hesitate to touch base with your doctor if anything doesn’t feel right. (Here are some common cycling mistakes to watch out for.)

And remember: You don’t have to talk yourself into saddling up every day. Motivation comes and goes, says Wilpers, and it’s okay to acknowledge that. What really matters is maintaining drive, he notes. “Drive is very consistent because you’re driven toward achieving goals,” he explains. With that in mind, it helps to take part in different challenges, whether virtually or IRL, to keep that drive going, says Wilpers.

You can up your gains, thanks to your larger training load. “You’re able to handle working out frequently, longer, and you’re able to recover better from working out more intensely,” says Wilpers. After several months of cycling, most people can crank up their routine to 5-6 sessions per week, he adds.

You’ll increase your maximum oxygen uptake (or VO2 max). In other words, over time, cycling helps your body get better at supplying your muscles with more oxygen and nutrients. That means more blood flow to the muscles, which means greater gains for your body.

You’ll start noticing lasting mental health perks. You probably get a rush after each individual cycling session, but research shows that exercise of any kind, when done regularly, can help alleviate long-term depression. Especially now during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to prioritize your mental health with healthy habits like exercise. “This whole COVID experience is kind of a mental gym,” notes Ciccone. “If you can find something where you can zone out for 45 minutes, that’s going do to so much more for you than any cardio or fitness class can do.”

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