Is Indoor Cycling Safe If You Have Arthritis?

Here are the need-to-know perks of cycling with arthritis.

If you have arthritis in your hips, knees, or spine, it can be challenging to exercise. After all, you want to avoid jumping or jarring activities, and even some gentle weight-bearing activities can aggravate the pain and inflammation. Indoor cycling is the perfect solution: You can get a great cardiovascular workout that burns lots of calories but doesn’t stress your weight-bearing joints because it’s low impact.

Plus, it challenges and strengthens all the muscles in your lower body, including your feet. Indoor cycling is also a particularly good option for people with balance and/or coordination challenges. If people who have osteoarthritis (OA) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA) become inactive in response to their pain, their balance and coordination often take a hit.

A little background: With osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, cartilage in the joints breaks down due to ongoing wear and tear; with rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease, the body's immune system attacks normal joint tissues, causing inflammation of the joint lining. The result with both forms is pain, stiffness, and swelling in the affected joints.

Indoor cycling lets you get the aerobic and muscle endurance exercise your body needs without aggravating these symptoms or requiring balance. Aqua cycling is another good option since the natural buoyancy of the water cushions the joints; however, a 2015 study from The Netherlands found that aqua cycling in a standing position is too challenging for many people with osteoarthritis of the knee.

A 2012 study from Northern Illinois University found that adults with mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee who participated in a group cycling program for 12 weeks gained significant improvements in their pain and stiffness as well as their walking speed. In a 2013 review of the medical literature, researchers from Italy concluded that in the early post-operative phase after hip replacement (a treatment for severe arthritis in the hip), riding a stationary bicycle had the most favorable effect.

Meanwhile, people with rheumatoid arthritis often experience reduced muscle strength and endurance from inactivity as well as an accelerated loss of lean muscle mass that’s associated with the disease, which can have a profound effect on their quality of life: A 2011 study from Austria found that when patients with rheumatoid arthritis participated in a combined strength and endurance training program that involved doing resistance exercises for all the major muscle groups and riding a stationary bicycle twice a week, their pain and disease activity dropped considerably and their overall health and ability to function improved considerably after six months; as an added perk, they lost body fat and gained lean muscle mass, too. Other research has found that cycling can enhance cartilage integrity, joint lubrication, and joint mobility in people with rheumatoid arthritis—without exacerbating disease activity.

If you have arthritis and you want to participate in indoor cycling, a few precautions are in order.

First, be sure to set up your bike properly for your body so that you don’t put unnecessary strain on your joints. Take time to warm up properly and cool down and stretch after the ride. While you’re riding, be a stickler for proper form and listen to your body to gauge how hard to push yourself in terms of pace, resistance, and effort, and to find your personal sweet spot when it comes to comfort and conditioning; if riding in a standing position is painful or too difficult for you, stay in the saddle. If you’re worried about stressing your knees, take steps to modify the workout to protect them.

Remember: It’s important to personalize the ride, even in a group exercise setting, so that it works for you. This way, you can continue pushing the pedals and reaping the benefits.

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