27 September 2016Bicycling for fun, transportation, fitness and calorie burning

Here’s what I love about bicycling:

  1. It’s accessible and egalitarian. If you’ve got a sense of balance, and even if you don’t, you can bike. You don’t need a fancy bike or special fancy bike clothes. In Northern European countries people bike to work on Plain Jane commuter bikes, in work clothes. Sometimes while simultaneously talking on a cell phone and holding an umbrella (and perhaps smoking a cigarette).
  2. With new designs, people with poor sense of balance can ride adult tricycles. People with lower body paralysis can use hand pedal bikes.
  3. You don’t need a special license or insurance. You don’t need to buy gasoline. You get your bike out and go.
  4. Lots of cities and towns are creating dedicated bike paths or bike lanes to make the experience safer and more fun.
  5. Lots of cities and towns are starting bike rental programs: pick up a bike at one location and drop it off at your destination. No ownership required.
  6. There’s nothing like being on a bike and cruising right past cars stuck in a long traffic jam.

Bicycling is a big part of my family life, ranging from fanatics to occasional bike riders. I’d put myself in the more occasional category right now. I like fun weekend rides, not too far. Mountain biking more often than road biking.

The modern bicycle is a marvel of technology with a wealth of variety: sleek racing bikes, comfy town bikes with handy baskets, sturdy mountain bikes, kids’ tricycles, push bikes to train children to balance, commuter bikes, dirt bikes, tandem bikes and reclining bikes. And they all have one key thing in common: they’re all powered by calories. Riding a bike burns calories. Biking for pleasure or for transportation is great aerobic exercise.

The 2 wheeled bicycle is a relatively new invention in human history. People were fooling around with design concepts in the early 1800s. Pedals didn't come along until the second half of the 19th Century. Still widespread popularity was slow to build. Spoked wheels, lighter weight materials and the chain drive system helped make bicycles easier and safer to use.

At the time bicycles represented an inexpensive and convenient form of transportation, racing also became popular. Today we have more options for bike racing, but bike transportation is still important and growing in popularity even in places where cars are the transportation norm.

Here’s what I don’t like about the modern image of biking: it can look inaccessible and expensive. You’re driving down the road and you pass a group of cyclists, decked out in skin-tight bike clothes, fancy helmets, special bike shoes, sporty sunglasses and gloves, riding skinny expensive-looking bicycles. Clearly not going to work. And you think “mmmmm, not for me”. Bicycling is made to look like an expensive leisure activity, not a commonplace method of transportation.

That’s unfortunate, because transportation would be a great way to take advantage of the health and calorie-burning benefits of bike riding. Instead of sitting in a car or on a bus twice a day, ride a bike. You don’t have to be hunched over in racing form, speeding along. Modest pedaling from Point A to Point B will burn some extra calories, as part of your daily routine, not as some extra activity you have to squeeze into a busy day.

Whether you bike for transportation, pleasure or sport, biking depends primarily on your glutes, hip, thigh and calf muscles. Arm and chest muscles are used mainly for support and control. Hips, thigh and glutes are large muscles, and can potentially burn lots of calories during use. Calories burned while cycling depend on your effort and the time spent. According to MET values for bicycling, competitive mountain bike racing burns the most calories per hour, while a leisurely 5.5 mph ride through the park burns the least. But road biking has one calorie catch: when you’re coasting (not pedaling) you won’t be burning extra calories. So don’t pick a bike route that’s all down hill if you want to burn some calories.

Other factors that will affect calories burned:

  • Your weight plus the bike’s weight – your muscles have to move this whole combination forward, sometimes uphill.
  • Weather: riding into wind burns slightly more calories than if there’s no headwind.
  • Your fitness level.

For a 150 lb person, an hour of a leisurely slow bike ride (constant pedaling – no coasting) burns almost 400 calories. An hour of higher intensity biking at 10 miles/hour burns over 850 calories. But again, these figures are for constant pedaling. If you’re out for an hour, but actual pedaling accounts for only half your time you’ll burn roughly half the calories.

What about stationary biking?

Obviously stationary biking isn’t a transportation mode. You have to make time during the day to use a stationary bike, deliberately to exercise. But that doesn’t mean it’s less effective exercise. And for some people, there are a lot of advantages to using a stationary bicycle compared to riding outdoors:
  • No worries about traffic
  • No worries about road conditions
  • Avoid unpleasant weather, from hot to cold to rain, snow and ice
  • You can do it anytime, even after dark or before dawn or during a blizzard
  • You can read, watch TV or surf the internet while cycling
  • You don’t need a helmet or other special clothing or shoes

Here’s another advantage: you can use a stationary bicycle to stay active and recover from an injury. I relied on a stationary bicycle after breaking an ankle several years ago. Friends have used them for similar injuries, from leg to knee to ankle to shoulder to arm/wrist.

Recumbent bikes are good for upper body problems, since you don’t need to lean on your hands/wrists/arms/shoulders while using them. Plus you can sit back, pedal and watch a movie or read more easily that with an upright bicycle. If you’re in a recovery situation, ask your physician and/or PT about using a stationary bicycle.

Drawbacks to stationary bikes?

  • You don’t feel the wind or fresh air or appreciate passing scenery.
  • You don’t go anywhere.
  • You need access to a stationary bike, which means either at a gym or rec center, unless you purchase one for your home. In which case you need the space for it. This may be the biggest drawback for some people.

Calories burned for stationary bicycling are calculated based on the watts you generate. You don’t coast; you’re constantly pedaling, so the calorie calculation is going to be a bit more accurate. Most stationary cycles now calculate several measurements while you’re pedaling, including watts. The watts will depend on your rate of rotation per minute, as well as the effort level you pick. Total calories burned depends on how long you cycle. You can burn more calories by spending more time, or by increasing the effort level.

How to incorporate more biking in your life?

  • Bike for transportation when possible, whether to work or the library or a restaurant or coffee shop.
  • Bike for fun when you have time. Seek out local bike trails and safe road routes.
  • Find a bike that fits your lifestyle and budget. You don’t need an expensive race bike to enjoy biking. You also don’t need fancy bike clothes.
  • Get a helmet. Probably also a lock.
  • Obey traffic rules if riding on a road.

Biking is a fun addition to most anyone’s exercise repertoire. It’s a great way to have fun while staying in shape and burning calories.

Here’s a list of more resources about bicycles and biking.

Donna P Feldman MS RDN

is author of "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen", writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast series.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Exercise/Aerobic & CardioExercise/Bicycling

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