Cycling for Weight Loss

Jonathan Thompson
Happy couple riding bicycle outdoors

What makes cycling such an effective weight loss tool? Like many aspects of health and fitness, weight loss is actually a combination of several factors. To be truly useful, then, any weight loss method really should influence all of these elements. Cycling just happens to meet the criteria perfectly.

Calorie Burn

Bicycling can help you burn calories by very quickly increasing your caloric deficit. Depending on your speed, fitness level, terrain, and type of equipment, a 30-minute ride could burn about 320 calories.

When losing weight, if you burn more calories than you eat, weight loss will result. Your body stores any calories you eat that you don't immediately need as body fat. Generally, experts say one pound of body fat contains about 3,500 calories. Therefore, to lose one pound, you're going to need to burn 3,500 calories more than you consume. To lose weight at a slow, steady pace, you need to burn about 500 more calories than you eat daily, which amounts to about a pound of weight loss per week. Combining bicycling with a calorie-controlled diet can help you establish this deficit.

Building Muscle

In truth, however, the real weight loss power of cycling doesn't come from this initial caloric expenditure. In fact, compared to the 400-and-something calories that a comparable 30-minute run could burn, cycling leaves quite a bit to be desired. But, cycling has one distinct advantage over running: muscular development.

Because cycling challenges your muscles to handle a considerable amount of resistance repeatedly -- something running does not do -- that ride will help you build more muscle fibers in your leg. Since each pound of muscle increases your daily caloric burn by about 6 to 10 calories, developing your muscles via cycling will help you lose more weight in the long-term.

Getting the Most From Your Rides

There are several aspects of your rides that will directly and dramatically affect how many calories you actually burn. These factors can also influence whether your muscles actually develop to the point of increasing your metabolism. So, how can you turn things in your favor and make your rides as effective as possible?

Select the Right Equipment

Bikes are separated into an array of body-styles, each of which is designed for a particular terrain and riding style. While any style of bike will give you a workout and therefore help you lose weight, having the right type of bike will make your workouts more enjoyable and effective.

For the fitness-minded rider who will usually be cycling on pavement or maintained trails, road bikes are the best choice. This style of bike has several qualities that make it useful for weight loss efforts, including:

  • Light frame
  • Aerodynamic design
  • Thin tires for reduced resistance

The other primary category of bike you might consider is the mountain bike. Specifically designed for off-road adventures, mountain bikes feature:

  • Wide tires for better grip
  • Lower gear to help climb hills
  • Sturdy frame

Put simply, a road bike will be more efficient and will make your rides easier, more effective, and more comfortable. Mountain bikes, however, will allow you a greater degree of control and will get you off the pavement but will be a much more challenging ride.

Spinning Class

Of course, not all bikes take you outside. Stationary bikes, which allow you to workout indoors, also have a unique set of benefits.

  • Enhanced control over resistance
  • Accessible regardless of weather
  • Easy measurements of effort and caloric burn

Choose Your Route for Weight Loss

Where you cycle will affect the difficulty of your ride and therefore, how many calories you burn, with climbing being the primary factor to consider. Frequent, steep hills will force your muscles to work harder in order to keep you moving forward, requiring you to burn more fuel and aiding in your weight loss efforts.

But the opposite is also true. Level or downhill terrain will make the workout easier and keep you from burning calories. To get around this, use your gears to maintain a steady amount of resistance throughout your ride.

Design an Effective Workout

To a large extent, your workout design will depend on your route and bike style. However, to lose weight, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is your best choice. HIIT, characterized by bouts of intense work broken up by periods of active rest, has several weight loss advantages over the classic steady-state (SS) cardio wherein you maintain the same speed for the entire workout.

First, HIIT burns more calories in less time than SS. In fact, a mere 27 minutes of HIIT performed three day of the week has the same effect on your body as 60 minutes of SS done over the course of five days. That means that 81 weekly minutes of HIIT can do the same amount of good as a massive 300 minutes of exercise.

Beyond its immediate benefits, HIIT also creates a state called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), wherein your body continues to burn extra calories for up to 48 hours after the workout has ended. Combining HIIT with the strength aspects of cycling allows you to increase the amount of calories you burn both before and after your workouts.

There are lots of different styles of HIIT out there, and many of them will require you to have some sort of timer or cycling computer to monitor your speed and progress. One form of HIIT, however, does not demand any special equipment and gives you plenty of freedom while you get acquainted with this style of training. Plus, it has a fun name: Fartlek.

While other forms of HIIT strictly prescribe the duration and intensity of your intervals, Fartlek allows you to do it on an as-needed basis. For instance, after you've warmed up for about five minutes, you might decide to sprint to the end of the block. However, feeling winded, you proceed at an easy pace until the that telephone pole. Once there, you feel better and increase your speed again. The idea with Fartlek is to listen to your body and go as fast as you can in that given moment.

Starter Workout

For those riders out there who prefer structure, here is a basic workout to get you started. Note that this workout can work for all levels of cyclists since it is relative to your personal abilities. For the most accurate approach, use a heart rate monitor. If cycling outside, adjust your gears as you go to achieve the right amount of effort. For indoor cycling, set the resistance at a level that requires a moderate amount of effort - typically a 5 or 6 depending on the model of your cycle.

  1. Warm-up for five minutes at moderate intensity, about 65 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR) or an effort of 6 on a 1 to 10 scale.
  2. Sprint (90 percent MHR, effort of 8) for 10 seconds.
  3. Return to moderate intensity (65 percent MHR, effort of 6) for 20 seconds.
  4. Recover in low intensity (40 percent MHR, effort of 4) for 30 seconds.
  5. Repeat the cycle five times total, for five minutes of work.
  6. Recover for 2 minutes at low intensity.
  7. Repeat the entire pattern two or three times.

Tips

To get the most out of your cycling weight loss workouts, remember these points:

  • Adjust the gears to keep your muscles engaged throughout.
  • Select a bike that will work for your style and terrain.
  • Keep the intensity high to maximize caloric expenditure.
  • To increase intensity, sprint or head up hills.
  • To increase intensity on a stationary cycle, sprint or raise your resistance setting.

Putting It Together

Cycling, then, can help you achieve your weight loss goals by both burning calories during the workout and improving your body's ability to burn calories even when you're at rest. Your choice of equipment and workout style, though, will have a powerful impact on how effective your workouts are and how many calories you burn each time you head out for a ride.

Cycling for Weight Loss