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Can I Get a Quality Cardio Workout on the Recumbent Bike?

Or: How do I burn the most amount of calories while sitting on my ass?

When it comes to working out, we’re not all strongmen like Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (aka The Mountain). Many of us could go our entire lives and still not know our lat pull-downs from our incline benches from our deadlifts. Which is to say, there’s no shame in not knowing your way around a gym, or how to start the process of getting in shape. Just remember, before you sweat, be sure to sweat the small stuff.

I haven’t been in the gym in a while, but I’m looking to begin taking my fitness seriously. I like to ride the stationary bike and get some cardio in, but it’s uncomfortable. If I switch to the more comfortable recumbent bike, though, will I be getting the same quality cardio workout?
If hell had a gym, it would be filled with nothing except recumbent bikes.

The recumbent bike, i.e., the exercise bike that looks like a car seat instead of a saddle, is like the Flat Tummy Tea of cardio equipment, minus the Instagram influencer endorsements. How anyone thinks that you can get a “flat tummy” by drinking tea — instead of, you know, actually working hard — is beyond me. It’s the same thing with recumbent bikes; you get out of working out what you put in, and if you’re in the gym to be comfortable, you’re doing something wrong.

Recumbent bikes create the very lowest ceiling there is for results. “It’s more of a ‘mindless’ exercise that allows the body to be lazier than other forms of cardio,” says Jeff Jalaba, a personal trainer in L.A. “The body is inherently lazy, so if you give it an option, it will work as little as possible. Recumbent bikes don’t challenge you at all.” For folks that aren’t in the gym that often, that’s a huge problem, because a big part of getting in shape is changing your body’s metabolism. And basically, if you’re not challenging yourself, you’re not challenging the systems that go into dictating that metabolism. “You may see some initial weight loss, but at the same time, you’re making it harder to see sustainable weight loss, aka a good metabolism.”

But that’s not the only reason recumbent bikes are an exercise illusion. Sitting back — lounging, one might say — in the bike’s chair is a huge problem, too, because it encourages you to chill, further dampening your overall intensity. That tendency to go lighter on a recumbent bike, coupled with the fact that they engage fewer muscles than other forms of cardio means that an hour on a recumbent bike burns fewer calories than an hour on the treadmill, stair machine or *gasp* the elliptical.

If you really want to get started in the gym — and not go too hard but still get a good workout — Jalaba says to begin with walking. “I would recommend doing movements that your body and brain has to be in more control of and goes through more range of motion. Walking on a treadmill with jogging intervals would be a better option.”  

So ditch the La-Z-Boy bike, actually engage some muscles and remember that the gym is about challenging your body to make changes. That’s how you start seeing results — not by sitting around (even when that sitting involves a stationary bike).