I'm really more of a runner. I picked up cycling several years ago as my knees started getting worse and worse. I've since found something that helps them (more on that in a different post!) but still ride because it's just fun. Hubs does it with me, we've even purchased the trailer thing-y so kiddo can come along. Side note - he's HEAVY. I try to find the positive in that and tell myself it's good for my legs. Whew.... But I digress - cycling. I'll talk about cycling in general and get more detailed and go more in-depth into road cycling, spin classes, bikes at the gym, mountain biking, etc in a later post.
Public Safety Announcement - "It's just like riding a bike!" Yeah, they are lying. I jumped on a bike for the first time in YEARS about 10 years ago and promptly ran into a light pole. It is NOT just like riding a bike. Let's just be very clear you need to spend a bit of time reacquainting yourself with two wheels.
Cycling is AMAZING exercise and it's non-impact (previous pole story not withstanding). You can go for a leisurely ride around the neighborhood with the kids (great way to get them outside and off the screen!) or get serious with a competitive century. Yes, that's a 100 mile bike ride. At one time.
Just like any other form of cardio, the goal with cycling as exercise is to get your heart rate up over an extended period of time. OK - how high and for how long? Depends. If your goal is steady state cardio (your heart rate is elevated but you could maintain the effort for 30 minutes or more), then you'll head out for a 30+ minute ride, aiming to be able to say this sentence "Hi, my name is ______" before having to breathe. *Side note - this is a talk test for your cardio exertion levels.* If your goal is to do an interval workout - you take your heart rate and effort level VERY high for a short amount of time then allow it to come back down before repeating - then you'd go find some hills and sprint that bike up them.
By and large, cycling is used as a steady state cardio exercise. Most people aren't going to go out for a few miles; they go out for a 10, 20, 40 mile ride. After all, that bike of yours can go WAY faster than your legs can. Why not use it for all it's worth?
More about that talk test. Most people aren't at a fitness level where they are actively tracking their VO2 usage. That is, in simple terms, how efficient your heart and lungs are working and using the oxygen you're bereathing. However, it's important to have an idea of what your exercise rate level is to gauge whether your workout is effective. Too many people hop on a cardio machine at the gym and plug away at a VERY low effort rate, essentially wasting their time. So, the talk test. Three main levels -
Low Intensity - You could carry on a conversation with no problem. As a trainer, this level kinda doesn't count....
Moderate Intensity - You could say the sentence "Hi, my name is ______" before needing to breathe. This is where longer, steady state cardio hangs out.
High Intensity - You can only get out 2-3 words before needing to breathe. This is interval work and frankly, my favorite form of cardio.
Which one should you be in? That depends. What's your goal? Moderate intensity is best for long, steady state cardio (think training for a century ride, long group weekend ride). High Intensity is best for interval work, hills, sprints. You take your heart rate WAY up then allow a rest period before repeating. Interval work is hard but it's a great way to increase your cardiovascular strength and endurance quickly. I use this when I'm coming back to cardio after a lapse. Painful but it shortens the "get back in shape" period.
Back to cycling...so you have an idea of how hard you can work while riding. Let's talk gear. Unlike running, you do need a fair amount of gear to start cycling. First, if you're considering road riding - A bike, first and foremost. A helmet, shorts. Potentially shoes. Bike maintenance gear - extra inner tubes, tire patch kit, pump. Water bottle, water bottle cage, maybe a little bag that straps on the bike to hold stuff - keys, wallet, phone, etc. A phone cradle if you want your phone visible.
If you are just getting into cycling, start simple. Go to a bike store and talk to a pro about what your short term and long term plans are for cycling. If you'd ultimately like to get into longer road rides and races (centuries, MS150's, etc), it might be best to just start out on a road bike. If you are wanting to simply ride middle distances for exercise, you might be able to get by on hybrid. **Side note - that is where I started and personally found the bike too cumbersome. I switched to a used road bike and I'm much happier.** Talking to a pro about what you want to do is your best bet for enjoying the time in the saddle. They will help you choose the right bike, get you fit into it, help you navigate the giant selection of accessories.
Now, if you're wanting to approach cycling from a gym perspective, maybe do a spin class or two, you don't need nearly as much stuff. Shorts (the right shorts are key to not being miserable on those tiny bike seats!) and shoes that clip into the bike will make the experience much more enjoyable and effective. If you are thinking about switching to the bikes in the cardio area rather than the treadmill, you'll be OK in standard workout gear. Recumbent and upright bikes in the cardio area are perfectly fine to ride for cardio exercise for 30 minutes or more and not need special gear. This is a great way to test out cycling to see if you're ready for a spin class or would like to jump into the world of road riding.
Bottom line for cycling - it is great, non-impact cardio exercise! You can do it with friends and family, on your own or in a group cycling club. It can be more expensive with all the gear but opens up a world of exercise options for you! Give it shot and let me know how it goes!