This post explains why cycling is the best exercise for weight loss, and describes 7 steps to lose weight by cycling. Cycling burns a lot of calories, and can be sustained for long periods of time because it is so much fun. And because cycling is a low-impact exercise, you can start cycling even if you are very overweight. Many people have lost impressive amounts of weight with the help of cycling, and you could become one of them!
How Cycling to Lose Weight Works
Riding a bike uses all of the largest muscles in your body: your quads, your hamstrings, your hip muscles, and your glutes. Using large muscles burns a lot of calories. An average calorie burn per hour on a bike is around 400 to 600 calories, depending on your size and how hard you pedal. So if you can ride a bike for an hour a day, you can burn up around 4,000 calories per week. This is enough to burn off a pound of fat, even without changing your diet (although it’s essential to adopt a healthier eating plan too). And because cycling is fun, you can keep doing it for long periods of time.
Cycling dramatically increases the number of calories you burn, and also burns fat. It does this in several ways:
- While you are cycling, you burn hundreds of calories.
- Even once you stop cycling, you continue to burn more calories throughout the day, because your body uses calories to repair your muscles. And the exercise will push up your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the number of calories you burn while you’re just sitting on the couch, or even sleeping! After cycling, your BMR will stay up for hours. If you do 45 minutes or more of cycling, you are likely to keep your BMR raised all day long.
- You can burn fat by cycling for long distances at moderate to slow speeds, providing you don’t consume more than 200 calories per hour while you are cycling.
- You can burn up a lot of calories and rev up your metabolism in a short period of time by doing high intensity interval training on your bike. This has the added advantage that it effectively combats aging, as explained in this post about why cycling is the best exercise to fight aging.
- Over time, cycling will turn your body into a fat-burning machine. This is because it will build lean muscle tissue, which in turn raises your BMR permanently!
Which Training Zone is Best for You?
There are two basic ways to exercise on a bike:
- You can do long, steady rides at moderate intensity in the fat-burning zone; or
- You can do very fast bike rides in the high intensity zone, which burns carbs.
Interval training mixes it up, with bursts of very high intensity for short periods alternating with recovery cycling for longer periods. For example, you might ride at a moderate intensity for 5 minutes, then ride as fast as you possibly can for 2 minutes – and then repeat this cycle several times.
There is much debate about which of these ways of exercising is better for fat-burning. The consensus seems to be that interval training is more effective for fat burning, gets you fit faster, and is the most effective for fighting aging. The Journal of Applied Physiology reported that two weeks of alternate-day interval training boosted cyclists’ fat-burning ability by a whopping 36%. And the Journal of Cell Metabolism reported that high intensity interval training on bikes was the most effective way for people to fight aging – with the positive results being most pronounced in older people.
If you read my Complete Bike Training Plan, you will see that I have figured out a way to incorporate both kinds of bike training, so you get the best of all worlds, and burn fat in as many ways as possible – while also fighting aging.
Step-by-Step Guide to How to Lose Weight with Cycling
Step 1: Consider How Much Time You Have for Cycling
Think seriously about how much time you can realistically devote to cycling. Make a commitment that you will devote that time to cycling, no matter what.
Also, think about whether commuting by bike at least some of the time is feasible for you. It’s a great strategy because you have to spend time commuting anyway. If you can commute by bike even a couple of times a week, you will burn extra calories twice a day (because once you get to work on a bike, you often have no choice but to use the bike to get back home again!)
Step 2: Set Goals and Make a Plan to Achieve Them
Most motivational experts agree that setting SMART goals is crucial. In the context of cycling, SMART goals would be
- Realistic and
- Time bound
For example, you could plan to lose 26 pounds of fat (not muscle!) in one year. That meets all of the criteria above. You could then break that down into even more specific goals that you can measure. You could plan to lose 4 pounds in month 1 (because most people do lose more weight the first month), and then plan to lose 2 pounds per month for the next 11 months. This plan is a whole lot more realistic and achievable than planning to lose 26 pounds in a month!
Once you make that plan, you should write it down somewhere where you can look at it often. This reinforces the plan and your motivation.
With your goals written down in black and white, all you need is a plan to achieve your goals. For example, assuming that you burn at least 400 calories per hour of cycling, this would be the math:
- To burn off a pound of fat, you need to use 3,000 calories
- At 400 calories per hour, you need to cycle for 7.5 hours to burn 3,000 calories
- To lose 2 pounds per month, aim to cycle 15 hours per month, or 3.75 hours per week.
Next, refer to one of our cycling training programs and plan how you will put in those hours. Hint: it is actually very simple. In a nutshell, you will start off with moderate paced rides, and then later add in some interval training as well. The slideshow below highlights our best posts about cycling training plans. Just click on a slide to go to that post. I highly recommend our Complete Bike Training Plan, which has all the information you need in one place. You will notice that all these plans include a recommendation to also do some strength training two to three times a week – for balance, and also to ensure that you lose fat, not muscle.
Of course, human beings are a lot more complex than pocket calculators, as everyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows only too well. Sometimes the math just does not work out that tidily. However, rest assured that if you add 15 hours of cycling to your month, and also make a few sensible adjustments to your diet, you are certain to experience positive changes to your health, which will most likely include achieving the weight loss goals we mentioned. Always remember that losing even 5% of your body weight has significant positive impacts on your health, including improvements in blood pressure. And a combination of regular exercise, plus eating more lean protein and vegetables and less sugar, and eating frequent small meals, is certain to make you healthier.
Step 3: Get the Right Bike
If you are starting out as a very heavy person, make sure you get a bike that is robust enough for you. A light-weight racer would not be the best bike to start out on. A mountain bike or a hybrid would be a better choice. Here’s a guide to choosing the right bike.
Also, make sure you get the right size bike, so it is comfortable and safe for you. Here’s a guide to getting the bike frame size right, which includes an explanation of how your ape index affects your bike size.
If you live in a challenging climate (e.g. almost anywhere in Canada!), remember that you do not have to cycle outdoors to lose weight. In the winter, spin classes could work really well for you, especially if you value having someone else to encourage and guide you. Although bear in mind that these can be quite fast-paced, so they will be a bit much for a beginner. I actually tried one back in the day when I was just starting out in cycling, and had to leave the class, red-faced and exhausted, half-way through. I was too embarrassed to ever go back – which, in retrospect, was stupid of me. Everyone has to start somewhere!
If you prefer the privacy of your own home, you can adapt your regular bike into an indoor trainer with a simple but effective machine, such as the Kinetic by Kurt Indoor Bicycle Trainer. It’s quiet, safe, solid, and comes with a lifetime guaranty.
Step 4: Start Small and Work Your Way Up
Don’t go out and cycle two hours the first day, then find that you are too tired (and too sore!) to cycle again for a week. Build up slowly and minimize the pain. No-pain-no-gain is just not true! See my Complete Bike Training post which shows you how to start slowly and build up to great things.
Step 5: Monitor Your Progress
Monitoring your progress will motivate you to ride more. It’s a way of challenging yourself by competing with yourself. You can use Garmin Connect, if you have a Garmin bike computer. Or, get any decent bike computer to record your achievements – here’s a post comparing 7 of the best bike computers.
Also, there are also a whole host of apps you can download to your smart phone to track your rides and your progress for FREE. Good ones include Strava, Map my Ride, Google Maps, Cyclemeter, and Wahoo Fitness. Strava is my favorite, and it’s good for the global cycling community as well! You could also buy the excellent and simple-to-use Garmin 25 (reviewed here), the smallest GPS bike computer in the world.
Apart from tracking your rides, of course you will also want to track your weight loss progress. You can do that with a regular scale, but bear in mind that it is vital to ensure your food and exercise mix is causing you to lose only fat, not muscle. For that reason, a really good body composition scale is a great idea. I highly recommend the Nokia Heart Health and Body Composition Scale, which I (and many other people) have had success with. This scale not only tells you what your weight and body composition are, but also tells you your heart rate. You will find that your heart rate decreases as you get fitter, and it is fun and encouraging to record this.
It is also useful to record your weight loss progress with a good fitness app. Personally I find the free version of My Fitness Pal works really well. It has a great calorie counter, and it is easy to use it to record your rides. I tried pairing it with Strava, and found this did not work that well – I had to keep correcting the automatic exercise records. For example, if I recorded a hike with Strava, My Fitness Pal would record it as an (extremely slow) bike ride! Other than that, it is a great fitness app.
Step 6: Mix it Up!
Ride different routes to keep it interesting. If you can, ride different bikes too. For example, a racer will give you a good commute and a nice speed high, but mountain biking will give you more of a full body workout. If biking to work starts to bore you, consider doing long weekend rides in the country side instead.
Also, start to think about whether you are ready to join a local cycling group, which will motivate you to keep going, and make it more fun. This will only work if you are extroverted. The nice thing about cycling is that you can do it alone, if you are an introvert.
Step 7: Reward Yourself!
Plan some rewards for your hard work. For example, give yourself a reward when you have ridden your first 100 miles. And the first 200 … and so on. Pick a reward you like that will not actively sabotage your goals! For example, reward yourself with a puppy when you hit 1,000 miles. That way, you will have to start doing some walking as well! My dogs cause me to go for a walk every single morning, which has to be a good thing.
If you need any more motivation to start losing weight by cycling, watch this heart-warming video about how Phil Jones, once morbidly obese, saved his own life by cycling.
I hope this post helps you on your way to achieving your personal weight loss goals with cycling. No matter what happens, cycling will make you healthier, stronger, and fitter. Good luck!
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