Packing a few extra pounds since the start of the pandemic? Cycle commuting is ideal way to lose that weight and keep it off.
A survey by Public Health England this summer found that 40% of us put on weight during the pandemic, by an average of half a stone (over 3kg). We’ve been moving less, due to being furloughed or working from home, and comfort-eating more. Deep down everyone knows the solution to this: move more, eat less. Cycling, and specifically cycle commuting, is ideal.
It’s not a quick fix. You could lose half a stone in a month by cycling but it’s unlikely. Much easier is a stone over the course of a year. All you need to do is ride your bike regularly. Not hard, not far – just regularly.
Counting cycling’s calories
Easy-to-moderate cycling such as commuting burns around 300 calories an hour, rising to 600 for more strenuous cycling and 1,000 or more for racing. These are rough estimates: the numbers depend on your size, age, gender, and effort level. (You can get a more precise figure by cycling with a heart rate monitor linked to a fitness app.)
It doesn’t matter what bike you ride. You’ll go faster – and thus further – for the same effort on a road bike compared to a heavyweight roadster but you won’t burn more calories per hour. E-bikes are a special case. The motor assistance means you’ll do less work, primarily by keeping you at easy-to-moderate effort levels when the going gets tougher. You’ll still get aerobic exercise, however, and can expect to burn around 75% as many calories. Bottom line: you don’t need a racing bike. You need a bike (or an e-bike) that you’ll ride day in, day out, in all weathers.
It’s the same with clothing. Wear whatever encourages you to make regular journeys. For some that will be street clothes, for others Lycra. Cyclists in bike kit are less likely to mind pedalling hard and getting sweaty, so may burn more calories per hour. But you can burn just as many calories more easily by riding at an easier pace more often. As with any exercise, frequency of repetition is key.
That’s why cycling is better than running or swimming for losing weight. The minimum effort level for running or swimming is higher than for cycling, so they typically burn more calories per hour: from around 400 for swimming (breastroke; 600 for crawl) and around 600 for running. But it’s much easier to spend more hours on a bike because you can integrate cycling into your daily life. Who swims to work or runs to the shops? You have to make time to swim or run. Transport cycling uses ‘dead time’ you’d otherwise spend in a car or on a train or bus.
The calorie equation
Weight loss isn’t just about burning calories. There are two sides to the calorie equation: those you consume and those you expend. To lose weight you need a calorie deficit. You have to burn more calories than you eat and drink. We’re looking here at how to create that deficit by expending more calories rather than consuming less. But you can’t outride a bad diet. Cycling won’t make you slim if you’re eating rubbish; it’ll just stop you getting fatter.
If you need to change your diet, you probably know already – and, moreover, how to do it: eat more vegetables by covering at least half the plate with them; eat less fast food and confectionary; avoid sugary drinks and excessive alcohol. There’s something else that’s easy to overlook: don’t eat like a sports cyclist unless you are one. Energy drinks, gels, and bars are effectively confectionary if you’re not doing cycle sport.
When changing your diet, don’t go on a crash diet. It may work in the short term but it’s hard to keep the weight off. Your body will rebel at a huge calorie deficit. That’s true whether you cut your calorie intake massively or massively increase your calorie output with a brutal exercise regime. Either way, you’ll get really, really hungry. And then it’s easy to end up smashing a whole packet of biscuits at midnight in your jim-jams…
Lose weight the easy way
A pound of fat contains about 3,500 calories, while a stone (14lb) is 49,000. With moderate cycling burning only 300 per hour, it will clearly take a long time to shift that. Accept that it will be slow and steady progress. Don’t track your daily weight. Track your daily cycling. The weight loss will come.
Let’s say your workplace is three or four miles away and it takes you 20 minutes to cycle there. A 20-minute bike ride isn’t really a workout. It’s a walk, or rather a ride, in the park. But that’s 40 minutes aerobic exercise a day, assuming you also cycle home, burning 200 extra calories. Five days a week, that’s 1,000 calories. Do it year round – let’s say 48 weeks, to account for holidays – and that’s 48,000 calories. That’s practically a stone right there. No expensive gym membership. No sweating in leisurewear. Just pootling to work and back.
You can lose weight more quickly by cycling harder. But riding at an easy pace like this is essentially ‘fat burning’. When cyclists talk of fat burning, they mean going for longer, lower intensity rides. Spending just as many hours in the saddle over the course of lots of shorter rides will get the same job done.
Riding at a lower intensity doesn’t burn as many calories per hour as sweaty cycling. But it also doesn’t burn through your limited glycogen reserves in the same way. You don’t get as hungry, so you’re less inclined to overcompensate with calorific food when you get off the bike. The harder you ride, the hungrier you become. And, hey, don’t those cakes and biscuits look tempting?
If you find yourself often feeling peckish after riding to work – or, more likely, a longer weekend ride – plan ahead. Getting food after a hard bike ride is like supermarket shopping when you’re hungry: you end up choosing calorific treats. Make a packed lunch or prepare something nutritious you can stick in the microwave. That way you’ll wolf down food that’s good for you and not undo all your gains.
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).