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Hooked on Peloton? What to know if the only exercise you're doing is cycling

Peloton is hot, but if your goal is to lose weight or improve overall fitness, how effective is only riding a stationary bike?
Peloton bikes have allowed users to experience a group-like fitness class at home, while gyms and fitness studios are closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Peloton bikes have allowed users to experience a group-like fitness class at home, while gyms and fitness studios are closed during the coronavirus pandemic.Peloton
/ Source: TODAY

The coronavirus quarantine has been quite a ride for people devoted to their Pelotons.

The stationary exercise bike, which has a Wi-Fi-enabled screen that lets riders take part in online classes, has surged in popularity since gyms closed and stuck-at-home Americans began looking for ways to stay fit and connected.

Last month, Peloton said it held its largest class ever, with more than 23,000 people streaming it from home, CNBC reported. The company’s sales have soared 66% from a year ago.

(Comcast, the parent company of NBC Universal and TODAY, is a shareholder in Peloton.)

“I love my Peloton, which (despite the hefty price tag) has more than paid for itself in burned calories and much-needed zen. And I am clearly not alone,” David Kaufman, a New York-based writer, declared in an essay for NBC News THINK.

But if the goal is to lose weight or improve overall fitness, how effective is only riding a Peloton — or any other stationary bike — and doing nothing else?

The pros:

Stationary cycling is a great cardiovascular exercise, said Deborah Riebe, a professor of exercise science and associate dean of the college of health sciences at the University of Rhode Island.

Being able to ride along with a teacher while gyms are closed is an added benefit, she noted.

“Certainly having an instructor in a non-group setting right now is a nice bonus,” Riebe, an American College of Sports Medicine Fellow, told TODAY.

“A lot of people do enjoy group exercise and that’s not possible right now so there’s the added motivation of having an instructor at this time.”

When it comes to a general health benefit, the mode of aerobic exercise isn’t particularly important, said Keith Diaz, an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, who studies the health dangers of too much sitting.

“To prevent chronic diseases, adults should exercise for at least 150 minutes per week at a moderate or vigorous intensity,” Diaz said.

“The exercise should be hard enough that your heart will beat faster and you’ll breathe harder than normal … Any form of aerobic exercise will increase your heart rate, get blood flowing and burn calories.”

A simple rule of thumb is that you should be able to talk, but not sing, he noted. If you can sing, you're not working hard enough

The caveats:

A good, well-rounded fitness program should include something other than aerobic exercise, Riebe said. That means adding strength training and flexibility to the mix.

Indoor cycling may be intense for the heart, but it doesn’t really strengthen other muscles and usually doesn’t engage the upper body at all, she noted.

Then, there’s the issue of doing a very repetitive pattern of movement all the time. The experts would rather see people change things up a bit, or cross-train, to give the muscles and joints they commonly use during workouts a break.

“It’s beneficial for reducing overuse injuries,” Diaz said. “Cross training, or varying your mode of exercise, can also be important for reducing burnout or psychological fatigue. It would be like eating the same fruit every day. After a while, you want some variety.”

Is cycling good for weight loss?

“Absolutely,” since aerobic exercise burns the most calories, Riebe said. But she emphasized any weight loss comes down to caloric expenditure, which involves both exercise and diet. Some experts say eating less delivers the best results if you're strictly interested in dropping pounds.

People who want to lose weight should aim to exercise for 250 minutes per week at a moderate or vigorous intensity — a much higher amount than what’s recommended for basic health, Diaz said.

“Thirty minutes of exercise a few times per week will not yield large amounts of weight loss — 60 minutes or more per workout would be needed,” he noted.

Bottom line:

If you love stationary cycling and that’s all you want to do, “that’s really fine,” Riebe said. "I would congratulate them for being dedicated to exercise because that's very important."

If you’re cycling every day or at a high intensity, be self-aware of any aches and pains. Get the adequate rest or take a day off when needed.

If you want to take a much more well-rounded approach to fitness, add strength training to your exercise routine at least two times a week. No fancy equipment needed — you can lift household items or do exercises that use your own body weight, like pushups. It’s vital to take a day off in between strength workouts to allow muscles to recover and build.

Don’t forget to add a flexibility component to your exercise portfolio with yoga or other stretches.

Mix up your routine by replacing some of your cycling workouts with jogging or swimming. Running actually involves more muscle groups than cycling, Diaz said.

Try to move more all day long: Many people’s activity habits have changed in a potentially harmful way during the coronavirus lockdown, Diaz said. They’re sitting more, so the number of calories they’re burning from everyday activities is less than before — even with daily exercise.

“For those looking to maintain or lose weight, it’s important to think about what you are doing during the rest of the day outside of your workouts,” he advised.