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How does bicycling compare to other exercises when it comes to fat loss?

I'm thinking about getting a single speed bike and riding to Uni which is about 10 minutes away by car. There is a nice trail along the highway-ish part that leads all the way to the University.

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8 Answers 8

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The main indicator of "fat burning" in different exercises boils down to your rate of calorie burn, and how long you maintain that rate.

Cycling is not a bad way to lose fat by that metric, since as you get trained up you can maintain a reasonable rate of burn for quite a long duration. Cycling burns (depending on the speed/amount of effort) several hundred calories per hour. When I'm out on a long ride I refuel at the rate of 150 or so calories per hour. Assuming that I don't completely erase that by overeating after a ride I get to keep that deficit for that day.

All this being said, cycling 20-30 minutes per day is likely to make you stronger, but not trim you down super fast.

Edit: Should have been more clear on this, but cycling doesn't burn more calories per hour than running (or some other exercises). Cycling is, however, lower impact and for some people more enjoyable than running, allowing a greater amount of time in the calorie burning zone.

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Before you significantly burn fat, you have to put enough demands on the body's biochemistry, and cycling is excellent. More of that bodily response below, but first note that cycling slowly (6-11 mph) burns Calories equal to roughly 1/4 of your weight in pounds per mile vs 2/3 your weight walking or running. Of course, less stress on joints, tendons, etc. usually means you can go much farther cycling and at about 3x your walking speed, so cycling has an edge in calorie burning. As you'll see, it takes less cycling time each time you ride to tell the body it better start getting into shape.

Your muscle cells contain enzymes to rapidly burn sugar or fat for energy. If you're out of shape the fat-burning enzymes decrease in concentration (the main reason people claim a "slow metabolism") and the body barely releases fatty acids into the blood stream to be used as energy. Note that studies in the 90's made famous in Covert Bailey's fitness books (like the NY Times bestseller "Smart Exercise: Burning Fat, Getting Fit") and PBS series, as well as a 2010-released Harvard Nurses study show that the rate of fat burning (as the days go by) increases ONLY if each exercise is long enough to elicit a "systemic response" from the body, which essentially says, "Ok, burning sugar isn't good enough, so I better create more fat-burning enzymes in the muscle cells and also release more fatty acids from the fat cells during and after exercise.

20 minutes of bicycling or swimming is usually enough to generate that response, but it takes 40 minutes of walking. Running takes 15 min and cross country skiing 12 minutes, but all these times, of course, vary with the runner's current fitness level, the workout intensity, and any personal unusual biological factors. In general, the more muscles used in an activity, the less time is required. Anything LESS than these times generally does little to coax the body to get into shape.

The Harvard Nurses study whose link I provided says that women who walked slowly from 1989-2005 did NOT lose weight and women who biked less than 15 min./day GAINED 4.5 lbs on average. This all fits with Bailey's research on "systemic response."

Note that if you're out of shape and exceed 80% of your recommended max. heart rate [normally 220 beats/minute - your age in years = max beats/min] you begin to burn higher percentages of sugar and less fat. The "sweet spot" for burning fat for most people is 65%-80% the recommended max. heart rate, the "aerobic" zone.

If you go under or exceed that range, you burn more sugar and less fat and, if you're out of shape, your body replaces the used-up sugar in the muscle cells with mostly bloodstream sugar, not the significant amount of bloodstream fatty-acids (converted to sugar) that fit people do.

Of course even if you exceed the 80% max. heart rate, you're pushing your body into better fitness and better future burning of fats as long as you exceed the "systemic response" time for your exercise.

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Nice answer @the-Mick at least it tries to explain why there is a difference :) –  Ivo Flipse Jun 19 '11 at 19:20

Riding to the university will be far more physical than taking the car, but the physical exertion will be dependent upon the speed you ride. A leisurely speed of 10 mph will not break a sweat, while a speed of 20mph will get your heart rate into the exercise zone and keep it there.

As some examples, I can ride all day at 15 mph. At 18 mph, I can last about 5 miles. At 22 mph (the speed my co-workers prefer to pace themselves at), I can last about a half mile before I bonk. Tour-de-France riders average 30-35 mph over each day's stage.

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Cycling is a good way to burn fat but it's not going to be as efficient as running. Alesplin is right that it's all about the amount of calories burned (burning fat is going to depend on you burning more calories than you take in). You can Google "calorie burning chart for exercise" or something similar and see a lot of different results that say a lot of different things (so I take them with a grain of salt) but ultimately I think you'll notice that in all of them they rate running as a better calorie burner than cycling. Also I can tell you from experience that I have to go out for 1+ hr bike ride to feel the equivalent fatigue that I'd get from a 20 minute run.

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This is contingent on the type of riding you are doing. Ride your bicycle down a mountain and I'm certain your point of fatigue will happen much quicker. –  Aaron McIver Apr 7 '11 at 22:29
    
@Aaron Agreed, I can bike all day at 15 km/h and only for a couple hours at 40 km/h. –  Matthew Read Apr 8 '11 at 13:43
    
@Aaron: The energy you expend doing any activity is going to be dependent on intensity and some environmental factors, so I'm not sure I see your point. –  matt Apr 8 '11 at 22:29
    
Exactly...which is why I don't see your point..."Also I can tell you from experience that I have to go out for 1+ hr bike ride to feel the equivalent fatigue that I'd get from a 20 minute run." –  Aaron McIver Apr 9 '11 at 20:05
    
@Aaron: My point is that at any relatively equivalent intensity, running burns more calories than cycling. –  matt Apr 10 '11 at 14:16

I've done both riding a bike and roller blading. Biking never did much for me except the pleasure of riding, but roller blading did, especially after having gone to the gym.

Roller blading burns off a lot of calories and if the trail is well paved, you could alternate between the two.

This one year I was roller blading twice a week along this paved trail along Ontario Lake and lost a lot of weight without trying.

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I ride quite a lot, and I will say that getting bike fit doesn't take an extreme amount of time. As for burning calories, whilst people are correct, in that running, per se, consumes more calories, it doesnt matter how fast or slow you run, you will only burn X amount of calories for Y distance run, wherre in cycling, the speed you cycle X distance at, determines how much you burn, and it rises with speed.

I would say, the more you push yourself, the more fat you will burn and on bikes, it is extremely easy to do interval training. Personally, I road cycle 40 miles a trip and the undulating surfaces ensures I interval train without realising it.

I have this argument with many friends who run, but I think cycling is the best way to burn fat as you can actually cycle to and from places much easier than you can run i.e. I can cycle to the shops and back, I can visit friends, far easier than I can runing to the same.

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-1, "it doesnt matter how fast or slow you run, you will only burn X amount of calories for Y distance run" is entirely wrong. –  Matthew Read Apr 8 '11 at 13:45
    
No, it isn't, it's factually correct –  Hairy Apr 8 '11 at 14:06
    
edb.utexas.edu/coyle he states that you use the same energy, materially, from running 1 mile in 10 minutes, than you do in 15, 20, 25, 30, etc. I dont think he has factored in the wind, but that would be nominal; I think the main crix of his argument is that you run x distance, you burn y calories, and that was the central tenet of my point. –  Hairy Apr 8 '11 at 14:14
    
With cycling, with multiple gear linkages, 2 tyres in contact with the ground and increased aerodynamic load, as well as higher speeds, it is obvious that with bikes, the amount of energy you use will increase by factors, by increasing your speed. –  Hairy Apr 8 '11 at 14:18
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This page shows that running 16 km at 8 km/h burns 852 calories, whereas running 16 km at 16 km/h burns 924 calories. Not an insignificant difference. This is besides the fact that people have different styles of running and may become sloppy if running faster or slower, thus wasting more energy. –  Matthew Read Apr 8 '11 at 14:24

The level of intensity cycling you are doing is the absolute key if you are aiming for fat loss. It would make sense that the harder you push yourself the more fat you will burn. However, it’s not true. The key to burning fat is to keep a constant rate of intensity throughout your ride which should be no less than 1 hour. If you’re aiming for fat loss your intensity should be about 50%-70% of what you’re capable of putting out. When you increase effort beyond that range you effectively begin pulling almost 100% of your energy demands from your liver in the form glycogen. Glycogen is basically energy on demand. It’s not fat that needs to be converted, it’s just sugar stored in your liver for immediate energy needs.

I myself am I mountain biker and I’ve wondered in the past why can ride 4-5 times per week for over an hour on the trail and achieve almost no weight loss. As for mountain biking, it’s a very high intensity type of cycling. While going up and down hills on a trail and powering through obstacles it’s easy be around 100% of what my capacity for output is. Therefore most of the calories I’m burning come from my liver in the form of Glycogen. Since the intensity is so high my body has no time to convert fat stores to energy and therefore it avoids using fatty enzymes. Consequently very little fat is burned during my mountain bike rides.

Conversely- I also ride on paved roads for training. During these sessions I’m typically on smooth pavement over flat distances that don’t require huge spikes in effort. Therefore I’m consistently riding for about 60-90 minutes at about 70% capacity of output. I’ve noticed that these rides tend to burn a lot of fat off my body. It’s because when riding at consistent rate of about 70% capacity of total output my body has time to convert fat stores to energy and use fat as fuel. Therefore the mixture of energy my body is burning is coming from both the energy stores in my liver and also from my fat stores.

Bottom line.
To effectively burn significant amounts of fat you should be doing a cardio exercise for no less than 35-40 minutes. More time is always better. If the intensity is too low it won’t be enough to trigger the release of fat stores. However, if the intensity is too high all you energy needs will be supplied by stored sugar in the liver. Therefore the intensity level of whatever cardio exercise is being performed should be somewhere between 50%-70% of total capacity for output. If you’re below or above this range you will not be burning too much fat unless you’re on a starvation diet.

Hope this is helpful to anyone who cares to read.

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This answer sounds like it has a valid scientific base but lacks any citations. –  Baarn Jan 17 '13 at 20:11

What is bicycling?

If you're just ambling along on your bike on the way to Uni, it probably won't contribute much to fat loss.

On the other hand, if you create intense interval-training cycling workouts, the results will be different.

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Good point..... –  Phyllostachys Jun 20 '11 at 2:24

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