Harvard Health Letter

Indoor cycling for older adults

Today’s high-tech stationary bikes are ridden at top speed, with instructors telling cyclists when to coast, sprint, and climb.

One of the hottest trends among the workout set springs from your old stationary bicycle. The new use for old wheels is a supercharged cardio workout called indoor cycling or Spinning (its trademarked name). First popular in the 1990s, the activity is still going strong and is now popular among older adults. “Many classes are specifically for seniors, with instructors who are familiar with modifications for your age group,” says Jacob Girlinghouse, a physical therapist with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The workout and benefits

Entire studios are now devoted to indoor cycling, offering classes on cycling machines that track mileage, calories burned, and pulse. A workout typically involves exercising on a cycle in a group while an instructor calls out instructions to simulate a real ride with climbing, sprinting, and coasting. The cycling varies between sitting and standing, and the speed, resistance, and intensity levels can be adapted to your skill level.

Because it’s an aerobic activity that gets your heart pumping, indoor cycling improves endurance and heart health, lowers blood pressure and stress levels, and strengthens hip and leg muscles (the gluteus muscles, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves). Another benefit: “Indoor cycling is low impact, so it’s the perfect exercise for people with joint pain,” says Girlinghouse.

Is it right for you?

While indoor cycling classes are safe for most people, get your doctor’s okay first, especially if you have a heart problem. If you have an injury, pain in your neck or back, or any serious medical conditions, it may be a good idea to ride a regular stationary bicycle at your own pace until your pain subsides. If you are unsure, ask your physician or your physical therapist.

If you have balance problems, a Spinning class can be a safe alternative to other forms of cardiovascular exercise because you exercise while seated. “If your balance is good enough to get on and off the bike safely, then you should be good to go. However, if you feel unsteady when mounting or dismounting, a stationary recumbent bike might be a better option for you,” says Girlinghouse.

Making it work

Some classes include advanced arm and leg movements that may not be appropriate for you, so let your instructor know about any joint pain or health issues before you start a class. Beginner classes often do not require any special clothing other than regular gym clothes, but you can make your experience more comfortable if you get cycling shorts—spandex shorts that decrease friction to help prevent chafing and have a padded seat area for a more comfortable ride.

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