Cycling and Arthritis

Nope, exercise is not going to make your joints feel worse. And yes, you can still ride a bike with arthritis.

In fact, you should: Cycling is a great cardiovascular exercise, says Lauren Shroyer, MS, senior director of product development at the American Council on Exercise. Cycling can strengthen your heart and lungs, as well as improve muscle function.

And studies show cycling may help reduce arthritis symptoms: A study published in the Journal of Rheumatology found both cycling exercise training and swimming significantly reduced joint pain, stiffness, and physical limitations, and enhanced quality of life in middle-aged and older adults with osteoarthritis (OA). Another small study found patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who exercised on stationary bikes regularly improved their aerobic fitness and blood pressure and reported fewer tender joints.

Another bonus for people with arthritis: Regular aerobic exercise can boost your mood and help you sleep better.

Why Cycling Is Good for Your Joints

Number one: less joint stress. “Cycling is a low-impact exercise,” says Shroyer. This means that cycling limits impact stress on weight-bearing joints, like your hips, knees, and feet. Plus, the movement helps lubricate the joints, which reduces pain and stiffness. Other benefits of bicycling include:

Weight control: Excess pounds can exacerbate inflammatory arthritis, as well as put increased pressure on your joints, particularly your knees.

Adjustable intensity: Bicycling can be done at a wide range of intensities. If you tend to go a little slower, you can coast once in a while, or use the lower gears to ease the burden on your legs. Research has shown in people with knee osteoarthritis, low-intensity cycling is as effective as high-intensity cycling in improving function and gait, decreasing pain, and boosting aerobic fitness.

Muscle strengthening: When the bike’s pedal resistance is moderate, it not only promotes range of motion at the hip and knee, but also strengthens your quadricep muscles (on the front of your thighs), says Shroyer. Pedaling works your glutes and hamstrings (on the back of your thigh), to a lesser degree. Strong muscles help support and protect your joints.

Which Is Better for Arthritis: Indoor or Outdoor Cycling?

Unless balance is a concern, both have excellent benefits, says Shroyer. “Indoor cycling offers adjustable resistance options and a climate-controlled atmosphere,” say says. Indoor bikes are safer if you have balance problems, and can provide aerobic exercise for those who can’t walk well. “Outdoor cycling, on the other hand, offers change in scenery and naturally variable resistance,” adds Shroyer.

How to Choose an Indoor Bike with Arthritis

Upright stationary bicycles are similar to traditional outdoor bikes. They have handles, pedals and a small bicycle seat, all set on a stationary platform. On an upright bike, you work the same muscles as you would in an outdoor ride, which is more of a whole-body exercise. Some stationary bicycles may have lower handles, which require the rider to lean forward. “This may be uncomfortable for people with neck, back, or upper extremity arthritis,” says Shroyer. A stationary bike with higher handles allows you to sit more upright.

Recumbent stationary bikes have a larger, chair-like seat. These bikes are easier on your lower back and hips because you sit back into the frame, in a more comfortable, reclined position. Recumbent bikes are often easier to get on and off because they’re lower to the ground, explains Shroyer, but may require far more range of motion at the hip than upright bikes.

The best way to find the right bike for you: Spend time on each bike at your gym to see which feels best for you, says Shroyer. Ask a personal trainer for help setting the seat in the proper position.

How to Choose an Outdoor Bike with Arthritis

Step one: Fit your bike. Take your bike to a local shop to ensure you have the right fit. A professional can also suggest adjustments to accommodate your condition. For example, if you have knee pain, you may feel more comfortable with your seat in an elevated position, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

If you have upper body, neck, or back pain, a hybrid-style bike with high handlebars may be a better choice, says Shroyer. You can sit more upright, which may ease pain. Another option: an outdoor recumbent bike. A professional bike fitting will ensure that you are seated optimally for your hip and knee range of motion.

Tips Before You Start Cycling with Arthritis

If you’re new to exercise, it’s always smart to first talk to your doctor. Consider the current limits of your joints, and work within those limits. Your doctor or a physical therapist can help determine if cycling is safe for you, and how to incorporate it into an exercise plan that gives you the most benefit without aggravating your joint pain. More tips to help protect your joints:

Move gently. Move your joints gently at first to warm up. You might begin with range-of-motion exercises for five to 10 minutes before you move on to aerobic exercise.

Get the right gear. If you’re riding outdoors, always wear a bike helmet, along with eye protection (like simple sunglasses) and brightly colored clothing. Also consider bike gloves to protect your hands from vibration, or from injury if you fall. Map your route before heading out. Dedicated bike trails help keep you separated from traffic.

Start with a short ride. Begin with five or 10 minutes at a low resistance. Go easy at first, then gradually increase the length and intensity of your ride as you progress. Work your way up to 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise per week (that’s 30 minutes, five times a week). You can split that time into 10-minute blocks if that’s easier on your joints. To determine if you are in the moderate intensity exercise zone, you should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising, though your breathing rate will be increased.

Stop if anything hurts. Listen to the pain, advises Shroyer. Take a break when your joints start to ache, or change gears to lessen the resistance on hills, for example. “Sharp changes in intensity can add stress to the patellofemoral joint [where your kneecap meets your thigh bone] and increase inflammation in the knee,” says Shroyer. “Don’t be shy about walking your bike up a hill you overestimated.” If feel any new joint pain, it’s time to stop. Talk to your doctor about what pain is normal and when it’s a sign of something more serious.

Stretch every day. If you have a flare of RA or an increase in OA pain, you should still stay active. Some simple stretching may diminish some of the pain.

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