When you need to calculate your calorie "balance sheet" with precision, it helps to look not just at the labels on your food for calorie intake, but at the average rate of calories burned with each type of aerobic activity. Biking and walking are both known as low-impact workouts, but what is the comparison between cycling and walking when it comes to calories?
In most cases, a comparison between cycling and walking finds that biking usually burns more calories. But the pace of your workout does make a difference, as do the walking vs. cycling muscles called into play depending on the trail conditions or machine setting.
Biking and Burning
The Centers for Disease Control defines bicycling at 5 to 9 miles per hour (mph) as a moderate pace. At this level, a person who is 155 pounds can expect to burn calories at a rate of at least 280 calories in that hour. As you might expect, if you weigh less than that amount, the calories burned will decrease but increase if you weigh more.
Picking up the pace of your ride (or stationary bike session) will yield greater rewards. On average, a person will burn about 560 calories an hour when going 12 or 13 miles per hour. When you're at true racing speed — over 15 mph — you can expect to burn an average of 850 calories an hour.
Walking It Off
If you're re-starting a weight loss plan, you may find you need to take it slow at the beginning. For walking workouts that are more of a "stroll" of about 2 mph at the beginning, you'll burn calories at a rate of about 140 calories per hour. When you work your way up to a moderate pace of about 3 mph, the average number of calories burned in an hour is about 230.
How do you know if you're walking fast enough to jump-start the calorie burning and heart-healthy benefits of the activity? Count how many steps you take in 1 minute. Ideally, you'll achieve at least 100 steps per minute, which works out to about 2.7 mph for the average adult. (What one health study might call "moderate" another could peg as "brisk," so having the baseline of a least 100 steps a minute is useful.)
Comparing Cycling and Walking Factors
As noted, the intensity of the workout can make more of a difference than the actual activity when you're comparing cycling and walking. In most cases, walking fast will actually be the better workout option than a leisurely bike ride.
At a super-brisk walking pace of about 4 mph, for example, you can expect to have burned through at least 350 calories after 60 minutes. And if you're into race-walking, that count can be 500 to 600 calories per hour, depending on your intensity level.
In contrast, a slow bicycle ride of about 5.5 mph burns an average of 280 calories an hour. It's still a substantial workout, but not quite as effective as an intense walk for the same amount of time, when weight loss or weight maintenance is your primary objective.
Ramping up the Workout
Aside from adjusting your speed to burn more calories, there are other ways to make your workout more effective. When you're walking or biking outside, head for hillier terrain. Even at a slower pace, you'll be burning as many calories as if you would when moving at a higher rate.
For indoor workouts on a stationary bike or a treadmill, increase the resistance, or set the machine to mimic a steeper terrain. Getting more of your body involved also forces you to exert more energy. Pump your arms when walking to burn more calories. When you're pedaling your bike, resist the urge to cruise, but rather keep pedaling steadily whenever it's safe to do so.
On the question of walking vs. cycling muscles, you can expect your legs, glutes and abs to be worked when walking. Pumping your arms will also work arms and shoulder muscles. Cycling also primarily works the lower body muscles. In addition, your core muscles are engaged to keep you balanced on your bike, while your arms and shoulders are constantly shifting as you steer and change positions.
- American Council on Exercise: "Physical Activity Calorie Calculator"
- Centers for Disease Control: "General Physical Activities Defined by Level of Intensity"
- Harvard Health: "Calories Burned in 30 minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- Harvard Health: "Walk This Way"
- Harvard Health: "The Top 5 Benefits of Cycling"
- Harvard Health: "The 4 Most Important Types of Exercise"
- American Council on Exercise: "Muscles That Move the Leg"
- Guinness World Records: "A history of cycling speed records as Denise Mueller-Korenek reaches 183 mph"