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Cheapism: Best budget exercise bikes

Oct. 19, 2011 at 10:52 AM ET

By Kara Reinhardt

Cheapism.com

When the expression “feel the burn” applies as much to your wind-whipped cheeks as it does to your quadriceps, it may be time to put away your bike for the winter.

A stationary bike lets you keep riding even as the streets and bike paths succumb to snow and ice. If you plan to ride more than five miles a day, it may be worth it to spring for an expensive exercise bike. But more moderate users can find high-quality models for less than $400.

Try to test out the different types of stationary bikes and select one that’s comfortable for you.

An upright exercise bike mirrors a regular bicycle, with pedals beneath the seat. A recumbent bike is designed with pedals out in front of a wider seat with a back to let the user recline. This makes recumbent models suitable even for older and heavier users, as well as those who are rehabilitating after an injury. But don’t think the added comfort of a recumbent bike translates to an easier workout; a study shows it’s possible to burn as many calories as you would on an upright model. Upright bikes tend to be lighter and take up less space, although many recumbent models have wheels to make them easier to move.

Budget stationary bikes may not boast customizable workouts or high-resolution displays, but they often come with electronic consoles to monitor stats such as speed, distance, time and calories, and sometimes additional data such as pulse rate. Many do offer preset workout programs and resistance levels. Make sure the resistance can be set high enough to challenge you as your fitness level improves. Conversely, the lowest resistance should make pedaling easy enough that it doesn’t discourage you from working out. Finally, look for a seat that can be adjusted to fit your height.

Below are Cheapism’s top picks for affordable exercise bikes.

  • The Schwinn 240 Recumbent (starting at $399) counts both fitness buffs and beginners among its fans, according to reviews. Experts, too, appreciate the built-in lumbar support, 16 resistance levels, and 18 workout programs -- impressive for the price. This bike has a 300-pound weight limit, the highest on our list. (Where to buy)
  • The Marcy Recumbent Mag Cycle (starting at $154) is a no-frills option for consumers who want to pay as little as possible for a quality bike. It offers eight resistance levels that must be changed manually and no preprogrammed workouts. Reviewers appreciate its smooth, quiet operation and ease of use. (Where to buy)
  • The ProForm 290 SPX (starting at $297) is a low-cost version of the upright spinner bikes at the gym. There’s no electronic display, and some users complain that the seat is uncomfortably hard, but this bike is intended to be ridden standing up; the pedals have toe cages to keep your feet in place. (Where to buy)
  • The NordicTrack Upright GX 2.0 (starting at $294) boasts 20 resistance levels and 18 preset workouts, plus an iPod port and speakers. Users say it’s sturdy and offers excellent value for the money. This bike bests the others on our list with a lifetime warranty on the frame, along with one year on parts and labor. (Where to buy)

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