Updated May 2019
To stay healthy the NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity a week. You’ll get that from a 15-minute bike commute each way, if you do it daily. That said, riding to work is not a licence to eat whatever you like, and it’s not enough by itself to shed the pounds (or not quickly, at least).
That’s because cycling is such an efficient way to convert human power into movement.
How many calories does cycling burn?
Moderate cycling burns around 300 calories an hour (the exact amount varies by size, age, and gender, and just how moderate your cycling is). Ride hard and sweat and you might burn 600 calories an hour - or up to around 1,000 if you’re actually racing. Most people commute by bike at a moderate intensity, however.
Two and a half hours of moderate cycling a week is roughly 750 calories burned - sounds fine until you consider that a pound of body fat contains 3,500 calories.That means to lose just one pound of fat, our 15-minute each way commuter would have to ride for over a month. That also assumes your diet doesn’t change at all, and you don’t reward yourself for cycling to work with food or drink.
It’s really easy to eat an extra 150 calories a day. A couple of chocolate digestives with your morning cuppa will add that and more. If you only want to maintain your weight, you can view those biscuits as ‘calorie neutral’. If you’re seeking to lose weight, you’ve just cancelled out the benefit of cycling to burn fat.
Part of the problem is that like any exercise, cycling for fitness and weight loss makes you hungry. Long rides in particular do this. If you raise your cycling intensity on shorter rides instead – perhaps the commute home – you’ll burn more calories and have less time to get famished, so you can more easily stick to your normal diet.
Same calories in, more calories out.
Cutting the calories you’re consuming (less in, more out) doesn’t mean going hungry either, but rather eating larger volumes of less calorie dense food. One word: vegetables. Pile ’em up!
Alternatively, forget about riding harder or changing your diet and just play the long game. If you ride 15 minutes each way five days a week, that’s 36,000 calories burned over a year (150 calories x 5 days x 48 weeks). That’s more than 10lb of fat lost for next to no effort.
No sweaty gym sessions.
No special diet.
Just a lifestyle change that involves riding a few miles to work and back. Most of us are capable of doing that.
Another benefit of starting cycling to lose weight is that the regular exercise will help regulate your appetite. You’re less likely to skip breakfast because that’s your fuel to get to work, and a good breakfast will stop you hitting the cakes and biscuits later. Lots of different diets will work. You don’t need to follow the latest fad. Just ride regularly. Bike commuting isn’t a quick fix for losing weight, but it is an easy win.
If you want to get fitter faster and lose weight by cycling, here are some tips.
Extend Your Rides
The most time-efficient way to get in more cycling miles is to extend the rides that you're already doing, such as your daily commute. Pre- and post-ride activities like getting changed, getting your bike out, or having a shower are already accounted for, so an extra half hour on your bike will cost only an extra half hour of your time.
Your normal route to work is doubtless quite direct, deviating here and there to make it quieter and more pleasant. Don't abandon this route. It's ideal to use in the mornings or whenever time is tight. Instead, literally go out of your way to create one or more additional, longer, less direct routes.
Do this once or twice a week, or even on every journey home, and you'll clock up more miles with minimal extra effort.
Head for the Hills
If you’re cycling for fat loss, include some hills in your route. When you're cycling, going around hills is often quicker than going over them, and it's certainly easier, so these are the routes we tend to choose for regular journeys. However riding uphill is a great way to get fit faster, precisely because it's harder. You raise your heart rate and tax your muscles, and it’s more likely that you’ll be cycling to burn fat.
If you can include a hill or two in your long route home, do it.
Ride More Often
Increasing the frequency that you cycle means more miles on the bike too. If you currently cycle to work two, or three, or four times a week, add another day. If you cycle to work every day, go for a ride on one of your days off.
Look for opportunities to use your bike for other trips - not just riding to work.
Need to pop into town? Go by bike instead of driving or taking the bus. How about doing the weekly shop by bike? Get a childseat and take your pre-school child places. The extra weight makes you work harder. Fitness instructors call this hypergravity training!
More time on the bike isn't the only way to get fitter; the other is to increase the intensity of your ride. Cycle harder. You'll want to commute in cycling gear for this, and ideally have a shower to use at work, as you will sweat.
A word of warning if you're going to push yourself when you're commuting: the safety of you and every other road user is paramount. This is training, NOT a race. Every second DOESN'T count.
Don't try to ride at speed through congested streets or on shared-use paths.
Don't blitz through traffic lights that are changing.
Don't risk rear-ending a car because you're staring at your cycle computer.
Any targets you set yourself can only be rough guidelines and MUST take account of the conditions.
Rather than having a target for your whole ride, a better option is to focus on shorter segments that you can safely speed up on. Uphill sections without junctions are ideal. Mixing a few hard efforts in your ride is essentially interval training and is very effective.
If you want to start cycling to burn fat, keep pedalling!
On a typical ride, you might freewheel for around 15% of the time. When you're freewheeling, you're not exercising. If you were pedalling constantly, you'd do around 15% more exercise, effectively turning that 10-mile commute into 11.5 miles. So shift up a gear or several when going downhill and keep those legs turning.
Alternatively, invest in a fixed-wheel bike. It's not possible to freewheel on a fixie, so you're guaranteed to spend 100% of your commute pedalling. You'll pedal at different cadences too – slow and hard uphill, fast and fluid downhill – turning every journey into a spin class.
Remember to Rest
Rest is a critical component of exercise - it's when your body adapts to the extra stress you've put it under. Don't just hammer out long, hard rides, day after day. Alternate long or fast rides with easy ones. Maybe have a day or two off the bike entirely. Set incremental goals.
A half-hour each way commute by bike isn't a licence to eat anything. Nor will weight suddenly fall off you. An hour of fairly gentle cycling will burn around 300 calories. That's 1,500 over the course of a five-day week, or a bit less than the calories in half a pound of fat. Losing almost half a pound a week isn't trivial. Over the course of a year you'd lose a stone and a half (9.5kg) if you made no dietary changes at all.
On the other hand, 300 calories is about two cans of any sugary soft drink or a single Danish pastry. If you treat yourself because you're commuting, your weight will stay static – and might even go up. On the other hand, if you're commuting regularly AND you kick the daily treats to eat sensibly, weight will come off you much faster.
Still need convincing? Here’s 10 reasons why getting on your bike will keep you healthy.
1. Cycling boosts your immune system
Regular moderate exercise such as cycling to and from work enhances your body’s immune system, making you less susceptible to colds and other viruses. Even if you do get infected, you’re likely to have fewer symptoms than your less active workmates.
Exercise can encourage production of infection-fighting white blood cells and bolster your antibody response. In fact, important immune cells circulate around your body faster for up to three hours after exercise, in order to deal with bacteria and viruses.
Professor David Nieman of Appalachian State University, USA says, “A high frequency of physical activity is needed to repeat the exercise-induced immune cell surges that over time add up to improved virus control and reduced illness.”
So commuting by bike really will keep the sniffles at bay.
2. Cycling is a stress buster
Loads of evidence suggests that people who take part in exercise like cycling suffer lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression than sedentary folk.
Many reasons have been put forward to explain this, from the simple – that physical activity provides a diversion from everyday worries – to the complex – that exercise induces biochemical changes that improve your mood. That said, many people report that they find the regular cyclic movement of pedalling more relaxing than other forms of exercise.
Whatever the causes, getting on your bike regularly is certainly a good investment in your mental well-being.
3. Cycling tackles obesity
If you want to get slimmer, or just make sure you don’t pile on the pounds, regular cycling is the perfect choice of exercise.
The bike bears your weight so there’s no impact on your joints, and unlike many other forms of exercise, you can cycle for prolonged periods to put your body into considerable calorie deficit – when your body uses up more energy than you’re taking in, encouraging the use of your fat stores as fuel.
It’ll depend on your weight and your exercise intensity, but it’s not unusual to burn up to 400 calories an hour or more on the bike.
4. Cycling can help you avoid diabetes
Long bike rides, as high-volume aerobic exercise, are a good way to help avoid diabetes. But a study led by Professor James Timmons of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has found that short, high-intensity exercise substantially improves the body’s ability to process sugars and fight the disease.
The researchers found, "low-volume, high-intensity training... substantially improved both insulin action and glucose clearance in otherwise sedentary young males."
The test group simply performed 4-6 cycle sprints of 30 seconds each, in six sessions over a fortnight – a total of just 7:30mins of hard exercise a week.
That should be easy enough to incorporate into your commute.
5. Cycling will protect your joints
People sometimes worry that repetitive exercise like cycling will wear out their joints, but a moderate amount of cycling actually increases flexibility and reduces the risk of arthritis.
Most joint injuries from cycling occur when people do too much too soon, rather than building up gradually – a simple rule is to increase the amount you ride by no more than 10% a week to avoid trouble.
In cycling, most of your weight is taken by the saddle so you don’t pound your body like you do if you run. Cycling is an excellent way to get a cardiovascular workout without stressing your joints.
6. Cycling will improve your muscles
If you’ve ever seen Tour de France riders on TV you’ll know that cycling can give you an impressive pair of legs, but you don’t need to ride as much as the professionals to enjoy the benefits to your own muscles.
If we don’t exercise, we all lose muscle as we age – often from our mid-30s onwards. This results in reduced function and an increased risk of injury in everyday life.
Cycling helps us maintain muscle mass, and although it mostly works our quads, butt and calf muscles, you’ll also feel the benefit in your abs and back muscles, as well as your shoulders and arms. And don’t worry that cycling will give you huge legs – it won’t; you’ll just end up toned.
7. Cycling helps prevent cancer
There’s a growing body of evidence showing that regular physical activity reduces the possibility of some cancers.
Research has shown, for example, that physical activity reduces the risk of colon cancer by about 50 percent. Experts think it’s because exercise speeds up the movement of material through the digestive system and colon, giving less time for cancerous agents to become malignant.
And we’re not talking about loads of high-intensity exercise here; the American Cancer Society suggest that 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week, will reduce your cancer risk. It makes a lot of sense to do it on the bike as you commute to and from work.
8. Cycling reduces your risk of heart disease
Heart disease is now the biggest killer in the UK, but many studies have shown that bringing cardiovascular exercise like cycling into your life will lower the chance of you having a heart attack or stroke, and reduce the possibility that you’ll need something like bypass surgery.
According to the British Heart Foundation, if you cycle at least 20 miles a week you are half as likely to have heart problems as those who don’t exercise at all. Riding just two miles to work every morning, and two miles home every evening, would cover it. That has to be worth the effort.
9. Cycling will improve your cardiovascular fitness
Cycling won’t just protect you against heart disease, your whole cardiovascular system will get stronger, meaning your body will be able to carry oxygen and nutrients to your muscles more efficiently.
This isn’t just useful for sport, it’s vital in everyday life too. Normal tasks like walking up a couple of flights of stairs or carrying heavy shopping will feel easier after a few weeks commuting by bike.
10. Cycling will improve your cholesterol levels
Most studies suggest that endurance exercise such as cycling increases the amount of HDL cholesterol – often called “good cholesterol” – in your blood while lowering LDL cholesterol – often called “bad cholesterol” (the artery-clogging kind).
The amount you need to exercise to improve your cholesterol levels has been the subject of many debates, but most health organisations recommend a minimum of 30mins on most, preferably all days of the week, at a moderate to vigorous intensity.
You can achieve that in 15 minutes on the way to work, and 15 minutes on the way home again (however there is some evidence to suggest that intense exercise has a bigger impact than taking it easy).
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