Cycling At Desks: Do Under Desk Bikes Work?

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reviewed by Ben Gibbons

We all know that sitting at a desk for eight hours a day, pouring over yet another spreadsheet, is not at all how it was meant to be. Our bodies have evolved across millions of years and countless iterations to move and keep on moving.

The office is the opposite of this, but step forward the growing phenomenon of cycling at desks!

As cyclists, we perhaps feel it more than most. We know the benefits of getting outside and pushing our bodies, and we intrinsically sense that sitting at a desk all day might be holding us back, draining us of all those training gains.

As cyclists, we have all, at one point or another, pondered the idea of an under desk bike. Yes: they do exist!

In fact, they can be an effective way to get some much-needed movement throughout the day. They probably won’t turn you into a Tour de France winner, but the gains go well beyond just cycling.

In this article, we will look at the following:

  • Why Is Sitting At Our Desks So Bad For Our Health?
  • Get Up And Move More
  • Does Cycling at Desks Work?
  • 3 Features To Look For In An Under Desk Bike
  • How Much Does An Under Desk Bike Cost?
  • Should Cyclists Buy An Under Desk Bike?

Let’s get into it!

Cycling At Desks: Do Under Desk Bikes Work? (Title Image)

Why Is Sitting At Our Desks So Bad For Our Health?

As humans, we got to where we are in the food chain thanks to our big brains and our ability to efficiently move across the land in a war of attrition against our prey. Few animals come close to our endurance.

A lot of us have become so accustomed to sitting for hours at our desks staring into screens that we have simply accepted it as part of adult life. It is only recently that the dangers of such prolonged loafing have begun to be studied, and the results are sobering.

In 2018, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study that found a strong link among 8,000 adults between prolonged sitting and the risk of early death from any cause.

Although the issue has received much more serious coverage recently, the link between illness and sitting on our bums first became apparent in the 1950s.

Researchers discovered that bus drivers were twice as likely to have a heart attack than the bus conductors standing and moving in the back of the same bus. One sat for 90% of a long shift, and one would climb around 600 stairs during that same shift.

Numerous studies have associated sitting for long periods with a broad range of health concerns, including:

  • Obesity
  • Increased Blood Pressure
  • High Blood sugar
  • Excess body fat around the waist
  • Unhealthy cholesterol levels
  • Increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The research is blunt – those who sit for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a similar risk of dying as that posed by smoking and obesity.

An office worker stretches next to his desk.

Get Up And Move More

Before we even begin to look at things like an under desk bike, there are simple steps that any of us who sit at desks can do:

  • Take a break from the desk and screen every 30 minutes or so.
  • Try a standing desk
  • Have walking meetings with colleagues rather than just sitting in a meeting room (bonus points if you can do this outside).

Another great way to balance all of that desk sitting is a type of sitting we all love- sitting on our bikes! It might not be possible for everyone, but even commuting to the office by bike on some days of the week will bring huge health benefits.

Does Cycling at Desks Work?

Any movement and resistance that you can fit into your day at the desk will help to burn off calories and help shed weight.

Let’s put some numbers on these statements. A study at the University of Iowa found that in just one hour of cycling at desks, participants burned 500 extra calories.

The pedaling will help to keep the heart pumping and boost your metabolism. Not bad, considering you are getting paid at the same time.

These are just some of the physical benefits, but, as with any exercise and something most cyclists know all too well, there are also profound mental benefits.

A study in the American Journal for Preventive Medicine concluded that there was direct evidence of improved concentration among subjects using an under desk bike.

In an age of stolen focus and constant interruptions from social media, anything that can help us concentrate better should be celebrated.

If you are one of the many people who like to fidget, then an under desk bike is a great way to channel some of that nervous energy into something more productive.

For more information on this, look no further than the school teacher who recently installed pedals under every student’s desk in her classroom. This one change transformed her students.

They were calmer, concentrated more, and ultimately performed better. It might not be the most scientific of studies, but the impact was clear.

Given these productivity benefits, we shouldn’t even have to ask our bosses to install an under desk bike.

3 Features To Look For In An Under Desk Bike

#1: Noise

Any of you with smart trainers or turbo trainers will know that they are not necessarily quiet.

This is not much of an issue when you are in the “pain cave,” but it is likely to make you public enemy number one in an office environment.

So, unless you have your own soundproof office, the most important thing to look for in a desk bike is how loud it is.

The best in terms of noise are those that use a magnetic flywheel. These models tend to be a little bit more expensive than the ones that rely on friction between pads to create resistance.

Not only are they quieter, but traditional trainers that rely on physical contact worsen over time and require regular maintenance to keep the noise at bay.

Although it seems like a minor issue, these kinds of niggles will more than likely have you putting the machine at the back of a cupboard, never to be seen again.

Noise issues might be less of a concern if you predominantly work from home, but even then, the constant noise may prove too much of a distraction to you and others in the house.

A person sits on a stationary bicycle with a blurred background.

#2: Resistance Settings

For cyclists looking to gain some improvements that can be felt out on the road, the under desk bike must have a suitable and adjustable level of resistance.

If it is too easy, you are not going to see the benefits and will get bored pretty quickly.

Most trainers have a knob that can be turned to the right resistance to help build muscle whilst you get on with earning that money for your next real bike.

We all know how sweaty a session with the indoor trainer can get, so make sure you are not pushing too hard. You might still need to look professional for that afternoon meeting rather than someone who has just made the time cut on a mountainous Tour de France stage.

#3: Traction

To get the most out of the under desk bike, you want one that is sturdy and doesn’t move around when applying all those hard-earned watts through the pedals.

Although most come with a rubberized, non-slip material on the base of the machine, often they are not up for the task, and the unit can move around annoyingly under a little bit of pressure on the pedals.

Look for one that can also attach to the desk, or even invest in a proper non-slip floor mat similar to the ones that you have under your smart trainer in the garage.

A person uses a calculator with a pen in their hand.

How Much Does An Under Desk Bike Cost?

As we mentioned earlier, you should aim for a trainer that uses a magnetic flywheel. They tend to be more expensive, but the extra cost will pay off in the longer term in reliability and noise reduction.

For these machines, you are looking at spending around $150. Aside from being quieter, they have more sophisticated resistance settings to help tune the workout to your goals.

At the cheaper end, you can pick up an under-desk bike for as little as $20. It will be noisy, will not be very stable, and will likely break easily.

Should Cyclists Buy An Under Desk Bike?

Whilst there are clear and obvious advantages to using an under-desk bike, for most committed cyclists, it is never going to be a replacement for the real thing in the same way even Zwift sessions can’t compete with the thrill of being outside on the bike.

Whilst they might only offer subtle benefits to your cycling, there are numerous not-so-subtle benefits for your overall condition, both physical and mental.

As someone who struggles to focus in the maelstrom of modern life, the idea of being able to channel some of that energy into something useful and, at the same time, improve my concentration is perhaps the biggest selling point.

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Something of an expert in balancing cycling and running with family life, David rediscovered his love of two wheels and Lycra on an epic yet rainy multi-day cycle across the isolated Scottish islands. He can usually be found battling the North Sea winds and rolling hills of Aberdeenshire but sometimes gets to experience cycling without leg warmers in Europe. He mistakenly thought that his background in aero-mechanical engineering would give him access to marginal gains. Instead it gave him an inflated and dangerous sense of being able to fix things on the bike.

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