Any discussion of cycling to lose weight requires a little clarification about the two kinds of cycling (at least as I classify them).
When most people think of “cycling”, they think of that fun, pleasant outdoor activity on a bike where they feel the gentle breeze on their face as they casually bike around the lake and look at the boats and ducks, etc. For our purposes here I’ll just call that “casual”, “recreational”, or “low-intensity” cycling.
High-Intensity, or “serious”, cycling is the kind where your average speed matters, you don’t coast much, your heart rate averages over 70% to 75% of your maximum heart rate and occasionally spikes to over 90% of your maximum heart rate (your max heart rate is approximately 220 minus your age).
OR more simply stated, high-intensity cycling is HARD, a little like running. You feel a little like you can’t really push it any harder. You breathe hard, your heart rate is HIGH, and your legs burn.
Either kind of cycling can be on the road or off-road.
With those definitions in mind, let’s talk about how each can help you meet your health and weight loss goals.
High-intensity cycling to lose weight
If you are already a relatively serious cyclist and it’s something you already do and enjoy, or if it is something you really want to do, it can be a blast while solving nearly all your calorie burning needs.
High-intensity cycling really works a lot like serious running as related to calories. It is highly intense and burns a lot of calories (relative to other activities). Fast cycling burns calories at around 85% to 88% the rate as running at an equivalent level of intensity, but a cyclist can easily ride for more than triple the amount of time a runner can run.
In fact, for a hard ride over 2-3 hours cyclists can struggle with the depletion of their stored energy sources (sugars stored in the muscles, blood, and liver) and actually NEED to take energy drinks, gels, and bars just to get home.
So if you get serious enough about it, your biggest challenge probably won’t be how to burn more calories so you can lose weight, but how you can eat ENOUGH of the right kind of stuff to adequately fuel those hard 2-3 hour rides.
Cycling (the “serious” kind) may be the one exercise that burns enough calories to actually matter relative to weight loss.
Most serious cyclists will never find this page because of these things. They rarely find themselves struggling with weight issues. For those considering getting into it there are some things to think about.
Challenges for serious cycling
The biggest challenge to entry into “serious” cycling for many people will be cost. Even a low-end aluminum bike with reasonable quality components will cost at least $1000. When you add to that the shoes, helmut, shorts, jerseys, pedals (yep, most good bikes do not come with pedals), water bottles, bottle cages, etc., etc., etc., you’re easily looking at an additional $500.
Then there’s the consideration of the availability of safe routes. If you don’t have reasonably convenient access to some wide open roads without much car traffic, or good off-road options, then that can be a bit of a challenge. If every ride involves a one hour round trip commute out to a more rural area, then that additional time investment for every workout is going to be a barrier.
Ask at a nearby bike shop where the local cyclists ride. That should give you a good answer to this question.
Finally there’s the consideration of the TIME required, which may be the most significant challenge of all if you’re not independently wealthy. Serious bike training usually involves more than 90 minute rides 3-4 times/week. That’s a lot of time to invest in something for which you don’t receive a paycheck.
“Casual” cycling to lose weight
This kind of cycling has a lot in common with Walking to Lose Weight. It doesn’t really burn as many calories in very little time like running or more intense cycling, but it is enjoyable and low-intensity, and does not require nearly the time or equipment investment as does serious cycling, so more people are likely to do it more often without thinking too hard about how many calories it burns.
It probably does more for your calorie count by virtue of all the time it keeps you off the couch watching TV eating snack food than it does for the actual calories it burns.
Compared to walking, casual cycling has one major advantage and a few disadvantages.
The major advantage: You can cover a lot more ground, see more scenery, and move faster.
The downsides compared to walking: (1) You’ll need a bike. Unlike if you’re more serious it doesn’t have to be a very good bike, but it’s still something you’ll need. (2) You’ll need a good, safe route to ride. This is also not as difficult as it is for more serious cyclists because serious cyclists cannot realistically use “bike paths” in parks, around lakes, etc. They really need open road with minimal car traffic. Casual cycling route requirements are a little less rigid.
Cycling like this burns around the same amount of calories as grocery shopping or walking casually through the mall. To be specific, cycling at an average speed of 10 mph burns 2.5 calories/pound/hour (walking 4 mph burns 2.0 calories/pound/hour).
As with so many things, cycling to lose weight will be a losing battle for almost anyone who doesn’t already have their calorie count under control.
“Serious” cycling does burn more calories than almost any other activity, but people who are already serious cyclists rarely struggle with weight. And the barriers to entry into serious cycling are so high (cost, location, time) that it probably won’t work for anyone who is considering it primarily for the weight loss component.
Casual cycling, on the other hand, has a lower barrier to entry, but it doesn’t burn many more calories than just fast walking.
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