Cycling for Weight Loss
Bike riding for weight loss is one of the most common reasons people begin cycling.
Regular exercise through cycling can help you lose body fat and tone your muscles. It also delivers a whole array of other health benefits.
Cycling is an excellent way to burn calories. It can result in the aforementioned effects when included as part of a healthy lifestyle. Something as simple as riding your bike to work may have a significant impact on weight and overall health, depending on the individual. It’s worth noting that if frequent poor choices are made regarding nutrition, alcohol consumption, sleep, and stress, the positive benefits of cycling may be considerably more difficult to notice.
Table of Contents
- How Many Calories Does Cycling Burn?
- Is Biking Good Cardio Compared to Running & Swimming, etc.?
- Types of Cycling Workout
- Fasted Cycling for Fat Loss
- Other Factors Affecting Weight Loss
- The Effect of Body Type and Muscle on Metabolism
- What Muscles Does Cycling Work?
- How Does Keeping a Healthy Weight Benefit Me?
How Many Calories Does Cycling Burn?
There are many factors involved in calculating total calories burned per hour during a ride, so it’s important to consider any number a rough estimate. The most important factors that contribute are bodyweight and intensity (gradient/speed).
On average, a person burns 300-1000 calories per hour of cycling.
Is Biking Good Cardio Compared to Running & Swimming, etc.?
Cycling burns fewer calories than running and swimming per hour of exercise.
However, it is far more common for cyclists to ride 2+ hours, compared to running or swimming, which for the average person are done for less than an hour at a time.
The benefits experienced from exercise come down to individual preference, the best kind of cardio is always the one which you enjoy and can do regularly enough that you experience all the benefits it offers. So if you are happy with cycling, cycle! If not, there are hundreds of physical activities out there to try.
Types of Cycling Workout
Generally speaking, different types of exercise methods will elicit slightly different changes in the body. For example, weight lifting (resistance training) will usually increase muscle size, strength, and bone density.
Weight lifting with heavy weight for few repetitions of the movement will have a more pronounced effect on muscle strength compared to moderate weight with many repetitions, which would affect muscle size. Using this model can help us understand that cycling works in a similar way.
To keep things straightforward, let’s say there are 2 main types of cycling workout and both should be used to get maximum weight loss benefit. These types are detailed below:
1. Aerobic Cycling (Fat Burning)
Aerobic exercise (low to moderate intensity) is done at or below a heart rate where the body uses oxygen along with fat and glucose to generate energy for movement.
At this heart rate, the body will utilize a higher percentage of fat for energy compared to glucose. This results in greater fat loss when compared with a higher intensity session. Another benefit of this exercise is that it can be sustained for much longer durations, potentially leading to even further calorie expenditure.
To accurately stay in this aerobic heart rate zone, one needs to first calculate their maximum aerobic heart rate (MAHR), or the less accurate method of max heart rate (220 minus your age). Once you have MAHR: stay just below that number during your training. If you’re using max heart rate: stay below 70% of the number, thus you will maximize your body’s fat-burning capabilities. You can know if you’re within this range if it’s possible to sustain an ongoing conversation with someone else.
2. Anaerobic Cycling
High-intensity cycling utilizes the body’s other main energy pathway. The anaerobic pathway prefers to use glucose in the absence of oxygen to fuel movement. You can identify this pathway if you pay attention to breathlessness and a burning sensation in the muscles (lactic acid build-up).
The main benefit to weight loss from this high-intensity exercise is it burns significantly more calories per minute compared to aerobic training. For individuals with limited time, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has a great calorie-burn-to-time-spent ratio. HIIT involves sprinting followed by rest for 30 to 90-second alternating intervals. Cycling at home (Peloton/Zwift), in gym spin classes, or simply doing laps of your local hill/mountain will achieve the same effect.
Fasted Cycling for Fat Loss
Time-restricted eating, or more commonly known as intermittent fasting, is a recent but popular tactic being used by those who want to lose weight.
People practice this by eating/drinking all of their food and drinks (except water) within a window of time under 12 hours. However, it is generally between 4 to 8 hours.
The effects on weight loss are likely due to a decrease in overall calories consumed by practitioners, however, researchers have discovered other benefits. One study of 30 men by health scientists at the Universities of Bath and Birmingham suggests that exercising before consuming food can boost fat burning when compared to exercise done after eating.
Dr. Javier Gonzalez said “the men in the study who exercised before breakfast burned double the amount of fat than the group who exercised after… dramatically [improving] their overall health.”
At this time, studies are ongoing to find out more about how intermittent fasting affects women. Female hormones play a larger factor in whether or not women will see benefits from time-restricted eating.
Other Factors Affecting Weight Loss
The calories in vs. calories out equation is an oversimplification of the process of weight management. There are a number of factors that contribute to the weight loss process.
Some of these factors can be adjusted for, and some can’t. Let’s take a look at other common regulators of weight:
- Stress – Successful weight loss has a strong link to lower stress levels
- Sleep – Achieving the recommended 8 hours per day is facilitates weight loss
- Nutritional quality of food – Processed carbohydrate-based foods can lead to overeating. Conversely, high protein, high-fat foods (meat, nuts) are more satiating
- Hydration – Optimal hydration is linked to improved metabolic function and weight loss
Check out our article for more detailed information on hydration and nutrition for cycling to learn how you can fuel your rides the right way.
The Effect of Body Type and Muscle on Metabolism
Each person’s genetic makeup is unique, meaning our body type and the ability to lose weight, gain weight, and build muscle vary greatly.
While one body type may have difficulty gaining muscle or fat (cyclist body), another may gain muscle and fat easily (footballer’s body). Though this impact is considerable, it is only one facet of the wide array of factors that regulate weight.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is one clear representation of this genetic effect. In a study done by the Mayo Clinic, 16 normal-weight participants were over-fed by 1,000 calories each day for 8 weeks. The person with the most adaptive metabolism gained 0.79lbs and the individual with the lowest adaptive metabolism gained 9.3 pounds.
Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue. Meaning that individuals with more muscle, or a greater muscle-to-fat ratio, will not only burn more calories during exercise but also while at rest. Add strength training to your exercise routine to have a dual effect on weight loss by calories burnt during a session and muscle added.
What Muscles Does Cycling Work?
Cycling primarily works the glute muscles and thigh muscles. The size of these muscles is significant (the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body). Cycling can grow these muscles and help you experience some of the benefits described above.
How Does Keeping a Healthy Weight Benefit Me?
By maintaining a healthy weight, you protect yourself from early-onset diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer, which are currently the number 1 and 2 causes of death in the USA.
The health risks associated with being overweight and obese are numerous, and the good news is that for overweight individuals, losing as little as 5% body weight can greatly lower the risk for many of these health risks.
By maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly, children and adults can both preserve and boost brain function. This leads to increased performance in memory and learning tests.
If you would like to learn more about the wide range of positive effects associated with cycling and weight management, you can check out our article where we take a look at 19 benefits here.
Above all, we should strive to enjoy our day-to-day life. If we can maintain a healthy weight by doing an activity we love (like cycling), not only do we boost our overall health and quality of life, but also boost the joy and happiness we experience.