Riding an electric bike isn’t cheating: you still have to pedal and you still burn calories. It’s like riding a normal bike, just a bit easier.
Riding an e-bike is good exercise. Almost all e-bikes for sale in the UK today are pedelecs: the motor provides assistance only when you pedal. No pedalling, no power. Twist-and-go e-bikes with a throttle do exist, but unless they are ‘type approved’ by the manufacturer or importer (and display a plate showing their type approval number) they are legally classed as a motorcycle or moped, with all that that implies.
So riding a pedelec still burns calories – and more of them than you think. An engineer in the USA measured e-bike and conventional bike rides back to back and reckoned he used 80% as many calories on his e-bike. He used a heart-rate monitor’s ‘calories expended’ function to measure this, which is a bit rough and ready, but was probably in the ballpark.
A typical e-bike motor might have assistance levels of 50%, 100%, 175%, and 250%. Those percentages are in addition to the energy you provide. So if you normally cycle to work using 100 Watts of your own energy, the e-bike would add another 50W on its lowest ‘eco’ setting. For the same effort, you’d have 150W of power, enough to go substantially quicker. (You wouldn’t go 50% faster, partly because the drag from air resistance increases by the square of velocity, and partly because pedelec motors don’t provide any assistance beyond 15.5mph/25km/h.) Alternatively, for the same speed you’d use about two-thirds the energy. So if you normally burn 300 calories an hour on an unassisted bike, that’s 200 if you stick it in eco mode and ride at the same pace.
The big benefit of a pedelec is when you come to a hill. Switch to the 250% ‘turbo’ mode and your 100W would translate into 350W, the power of a fit racing cyclist. You could potentially climb the hill with the same effort you’d use for riding along the flat. In practice, you’ll probably try harder anyway – subconsciously or because the gradient demands it – so you’ll still have peaks and troughs of energy expenditure on the e-bike. Yet they will be shallower peaks than when riding unassisted. Those breathless, muscle-burning moments of anaerobic exercise? Gone. E-bikes don’t stop you exercising; they eliminate the need for intense exercise, turning hilly rides in the equivalent of Holland.
Taking it easy isn’t the fastest way to get fit. To get fit quickly, you want high intensity exercise, which is why fitness instructors bang on about high-intensity interval training. But interval training is hard. Gentler cycling is a much more pleasant way to get fit that dovetails neatly into everyday life, and lower intensity exercise that you do regularly is much better for you than high intensity exercise you rarely or never do. Commute 30 minutes a day on your e-bike and you’ll hit the NHS activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. If you use your e-bike 50% more than you’d use an unassisted bike, you’ll get similar fitness benefits over the same period
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