More than half of all people in the U.S. are living with at least one chronic disease. Fortunately, physical activity and exercise can help manage symptoms and improve overall health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults living with chronic conditions engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, along with two days of muscle strengthening activities, each week. However, for some people, being out of shape, feeling short of breath and/or tiring quickly can severely limit their ability to exercise.
Pedaling a bike with one leg may offer a unique solution. In our recent study, published in Frontiers in Physiology, we reviewed over 25 different studies and summarized the benefits of pedaling a stationary bike with one leg at a time compared to normal pedaling with two legs. Pedaling with one leg (while the other leg rests on a foot stool) decreases the demand on the heart and lungs and allows more oxygen-rich blood to be sent to the working leg muscles. This ultimately lets the single leg work harder and longer than it would when riding with two legs. This method translates to a great workout for the muscles without overtaxing the heart and lungs.
We found that riding for 15 minutes with one leg at a time, consistently three times a week for several weeks, improves muscle endurance and overall fitness more than riding with two legs. This form of exercise has been used successfully by people living with heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and organ transplants. Importantly, with enhanced muscle endurance and overall fitness, people with these conditions can move around better and function more independently.
Interestingly, athletes pedal bikes with one leg at a time, too. Cyclists performing this type of training were also able to push their leg muscles considerably harder than when pedaling with two legs. Professional soccer players have also pedaled with one leg to maintain endurance and overall fitness while recovering from knee surgery on the other leg.
It is important to mention that our study was done indoors under our supervision. Also, we made some modifications to the stationary bike to make pedaling with one leg feel more like pedaling with two. For example, we attached a small 20-pound weight to the unused pedal to mimic the weight of the other leg. Lessons learned from pedaling a stationary bike with one leg have provided insight into how people with a leg amputation ride a bike and could have implications for equipment and rule changes for Paralympic cyclists.
Pedaling a bike with one leg at a time can offer health and performance benefits for many different groups, from those living with chronic diseases to competitive athletes.
Kyle Wehmanen, MS, is a doctoral student in the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Michigan Technological University. His academic interests broadly center on environmental and exercise physiology with the goal of optimizing human performance. Wehmanen plans to become a college professor so that he can instill curiosity and lifelong learning in his students.
Steven Elmer, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Michigan Technological University. His research uses physical activity and exercise as medicine to restore musculoskeletal function after injury, maintain health across the lifespan and enhance physical function in health.