Cycling for Weight Loss
Bike riding for weight loss is one of the most common reasons people begin cycling.
Cycling is an excellent way to burn calories, and regular exercise through cycling can help you lose body fat and tone your muscles. It also delivers a whole array of other health benefits.
Something as simple as riding your bike to work can significantly impact weight and overall health, depending on the individual. That said, poor nutrition and sleep, excess alcohol consumption, and chronic stress will limit weight loss from cycling.
In This Article:
- 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?
Many factors are involved in calculating the total calories burned per hour during a ride. Therefore, consider any calculation a rough estimate. The most important contributing factors are body weight, muscle mass, and exercise intensity (gradient/speed).
On average, a person burns somewhere from 300 to 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 are done for less than an hour at a time for the average person.
The benefits experienced from exercise come down to individual preference, the best kind of cardio is always the one you enjoy and can do regularly enough to 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 Workouts
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 a few repetitions of the movement will have a more pronounced effect on muscle strength than moderate weight with many repetitions, which would primarily increase muscle size. Using this model can help us understand that cycling works similarly.
To keep things straightforward, let’s say there are two main types of cycling workouts (aerobic and anaerobic), and you can use both to get maximum weight loss benefits. These types are detailed below:
1. Aerobic Cycling (Fat Burning)
Aerobic exercise (low to moderate intensity) is exercise below a maximum heart rate where the body can still use oxygen to break down energy sources. This system preferentially uses fat, with glucose as the secondary fuel. This type of exercise is also known as zone 2 training.
Aerobic exercise results in a higher percentage of fat loss compared to higher intensity work. Another benefit 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, first, calculate your 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 to maximize your body’s fat-burning capabilities. You’ll know you’re within this range if you can sustain just about hold a conversation, albeit straining.
2. Anaerobic Cycling
High-intensity cycling utilizes the body’s other main energy pathway. The anaerobic pathway breaks down glucose in the absence of oxygen to fuel movement. You can identify this pathway by paying attention to breathlessness and a burning sensation in the muscles (lactic acid build-up).
The main benefit of high-intensity exercise is it burns significantly more calories per minute than aerobic training. Therefore, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is excellent for individuals with limited time.
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, more commonly known as intermittent fasting, is a recent but popular tactic used by those who want to lose weight.
People practice this by eating/drinking all their food and drinks (except water) within a 12-hour window. 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. For example, 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 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 more significant 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 oversimplifies the weight management process. Several factors 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 regulators of weight:
- Stress – Successful weight loss has a strong link to lower stress levels.
- Sleep – Achieving the recommended 8 hours per day 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 quickly (footballer’s body). Though this impact is considerable, it is only one facet of the vast array of factors that regulate weight.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is one clear representation of this genetic effect. In a study by the Mayo Clinic, 16 normal-weight participants were over-fed by 1,000 calories each day for eight weeks. The person with the most adaptive metabolism gained 0.79lbs, and the individual with the lowest adaptive metabolism gained 9.3lbs.
Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue, meaning that individuals with more muscle or a higher muscle-to-fat ratio will burn more calories during exercise and 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 gluteus, lower leg, and thigh muscles, increasing strength and size. In addition, a small amount of activation in the core and upper body will build muscular endurance. Cycling can grow these muscles and help you experience some of the metabolic 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. The good news is that losing as little as 1% body weight can begin lowering the risk of many of these health issues for overweight individuals.
Additionally, children and adults can preserve and boost brain function by maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly. This leads to increased performance in memory and learning tests.
If you want to learn more about the wide range of positive effects of cycling and weight management, you can check out our article, which looks at 19 benefits.
If we can maintain a healthy weight by doing an activity we love (like cycling), we boost our overall health, quality of life, and the happiness we experience day-to-day.