QUESTION: How much exercise does an electric bike give you? Is it enough to benefit my health? —George V.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: My friend Murray is a long time cyclist who, as he neared 80, switched from his regular bike to an ebike. He’d always kept track of his bike miles, and, because he gained weight easily, he used a standard formula to calculate how many calories he burned when riding those miles. But now that his pedaling is assisted by a motor, he decided that he should discount his caloric burn by 50%. This was his own decision, as he could not find any established formula to measure how many calories are typically burned per mile while riding an ebike.
But here’s the thing: Though Murray is no longer riding a regular bike, he hasn’t gained weight. He’s now 84 and still riding 80-100 miles a week over six or sometimes seven days, including leading two group rides each week. Regardless of how many fewer calories the ebike may cause him to burn per mile, it makes it possible for him to keep riding at his advanced age, so he’s on the road instead of on the couch. I can’t put a number on the amount of exercise the ebike is giving him, but it’s clearly enough to keep him moving. Murray says he is no longer able to ride very far on a regular bike, and especially not on hilly routes, so without the ebike, he would be riding less.
Let’s suppose, however, that you’re not in Murray’s age bracket. Perhaps you’re a young person. If you are already a cyclist who rides regularly on an analog bike, and you switch to an ebike but continue to ride the same number of miles on the same routes as before, there’s no question but that you will burn fewer calories and get less of a workout. But you will nonetheless still get some exercise. Riding an ebike is not like riding a motorcycle. Ebikes are pedal-assist steeds; they only help you if you are pedaling, which, of course, is exercise. (An ebikes with a throttle is an exception, but using only the throttle to move the bike will deplete your battery quite quickly.)
Researchers have begun to look at the benefits of riding an ebike versus riding a conventional bike. This study, for example, found that ebikers receive some of the same cardiovascular health benefits as do riders of regular bikes. Specifically, the study found “After participants traveled approximately 10 miles on each type of bicycle, participants’ mean average heart rate while riding the e-bike was 6.21 beats per minute lower than when riding the conventional bike, but both were significantly higher than resting heart rate.”
And another study, cited by The New York Times, revealed that “Significant differences existed between riding a regular bicycle compared with an e-bike at assist levels 1 and 2, … The faster times and the lower perceived exertion associated with the e-bike may incentivize active transportation. Further, while the cardiometabolic responses (e.g., HR and V̇O2) were lower for the e-bike, they were indicative of being at or near ‘moderate intensity,’ suggesting that e-bike use may still benefit health-related fitness.”
The better answer to your question comes by first answering this one: How much more riding will you do on an ebike than on a regular one? And in that regard, there’s a study that shows that “people who purchased an e-bike increased their bicycle use from 2.1 to 9.2 km per day on average, representing a change in bike as [a] share of all transport from 17 to 49 percent.”
But enough of studies. Here’s my answer from experience: I’m 77 and have been a serious cyclist for 40 years. I’ve pedaled — unassisted — across America. And until two years ago, I rode only conventional bikes. That’s when I started noticing that I wasn’t able to climb hills as well or maintain a steady pace for as long. So now I most often ride an ebike, and I’m back to cycling routes of 40-70 miles, with pedal assist for many of the miles. And when I complete, say a 50-mile ride, I feel as tired as I did when doing the same distance on a regular bike.
Nobody can tell me I’m not getting plenty of exercise while using my ebike.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.