by Stan Purdum
Can you lose weight riding a bike? The answer is “Yes,” but it’s neither an automatic nor a guaranteed result.
Any bicycling you do will burn more calories than sitting on a couch. But if your ride is a short and easy one that goes directly to the ice cream stand, your hot-fudge sundae will likely put more calories in you than the ride to get there burned out of you.
A more committed program of cycling — one that promotes calorie use through duration (time on the bike per ride), distance ridden per ride, frequency of rides, challenging terrain and conditions, speed, intensity and riding with other cyclists — will surely help you lose weight.
Not all these parameters need to be hit on every ride. But if you have only 45 minutes to spend on the bike on a given day, the speed and intensity of your effort will determine how many calories you expend. When you have more time, a longer-distance ride with some intense efforts sprinkled in will up the weight-loss reward.
Likewise, a ride into the wind or over a hilly course will demand more calorie-expending effort than tooling along with the wind at your back or riding on level ground.
And riding with some intensity three days a week will have more slimming benefit than riding once a week.
It’s not wise to let your weight-loss goal keep you from ingesting some calories while riding. When pedaling for an hour or less, you usually don’t need to eat on the ride itself, but on jaunts lasting longer than that, some necessary calorie consumption is required in the form of sports drinks, energy snacks, and depending on the length of the ride, perhaps even a meal.
You don’t want to eat too much, but denying yourself some fuel on ride has a negative effect on your weight-loss goal, because you won’t be able to sustain the effort needed for a satisfying ride, you’ll likely “bonk” (cycle jargon for reaching a point of exhaustion) and you’ll end up so hungry that you’ll probably overeat when you get home.
As long as you keep your fuel intake within reason on a ride, your total calorie expenditure should be enough to cause you to lose weight. However, it’s easy to fool yourself, thinking, “Since I’ve ridden today, I can eat all I want.” Also, as you become more fit, your efficiency goes up, and you burn fewer calories per ride than you did when less fit. (Yup, it’s a bummer!)
So how many calories do you actually burn cycling? It isn’t a hard number, because it depends on things like your weight, average speed, ride intensity and other the factors already mentioned.
Here are a couple online calculators where you can at least get a reasonable estimate of calories burned riding a bike:
Perhaps the most crucial cycling factor that promotes weight-loss is when you begin to think of yourself as a cyclist (rather than as a person who occasionally rides a bike). That’s because cyclists like to ride and thus do it as often as they can. They often ride with other cyclists, and group rides generally challenge newbies to up their pace and put in a more-sustained effort to keep up with the others. And when you realize you are a cyclist, you have a lot of incentive and passion to make the diet and lifestyle changes necessary to ride more effectively.
Want to see some real-life examples of people who took up cycling and lost weight? Here’s the story of members of a cycling club whose members lost a combined 583 pounds of weight over 22 weeks.
New to cycling and want to learn the basics so you can get started? Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Road Cycling.