If you love biking and want to lose a few pounds, you're in luck — cycling for weight loss is fun. Having that attribute in an exercise that you actually like gives you a leg up because consistency is key for fat loss, and it's easiest to stick with exercises you enjoy. With that said, there's no magic number of miles you need to ride to slim down. Instead, it's all about balancing your diet and physical activity so that you burn more calories than you take in, which prompts your body to use up stored fat as fuel.
When it comes to riding your bike, speed and duration matter more than distance. But if you're trying to decide how long a biking course to map out, working up to riding 10 to 12 miles at a stretch is a good place to start.
Cycling for Weight Loss
As a general rule, the more calories you burn, the faster any excess weight comes off. A number of factors affect how many calories you'll burn on your bicycle but, as a general rule, having a heavier body and biking faster both increase your calorie burn.
Harvard Health Publishing has some useful estimates on what that might look like. For example, if you weigh 155 pounds, you'll burn about this many calories in an hour of pedaling:
- At 12 to 13.9 mph: 596 calories per hour
- At 14 to 15.9 mph: 744 calories per hour
- At 16 to 19 mph: 892 calories per hour
Notice that if you weigh 185 pounds, the estimates for calories burned go up:
- At 12 to 13.9 mph: 710 calories per hour
- At 14 to 15.9 mph: 888 calories per hour
- At 16 to 19 mph: 1,066 calories per hour
As you can see, cycling speed has more to do with your calorie burn than how far you go. But if you aim for even the low end of those mileages accomplished in an hour — about a dozen miles on the bike — you'll still get an impressive calorie burn. You might need to start with a little less when you first begin your biking program, and by the time you've been biking for a few months, you'll probably be able to handle more.
What Kind of Bike?
Those estimates are for biking outside, but Harvard Health also ranks stationary bikes as one of the most efficient cardio machines in the gym, burning approximately 800 to 900 calories per hour of vigorous cycling, depending on your body weight.
Mountain biking and BMX biking both burn calories at an impressive rate, too. The key principle here is just to get moving and keep moving.
No matter which type of bike you use, pay special attention to the seat because you're going to be spending a lot of time on it. Stationary exercise bikes generally have the widest and most padded seats, with recumbent stationary bikes offering the most comfortable seats of all — most of them even offer a bit of back support.
But you can buy specially padded seats for road bikes, too. If you're on any sort of upright bike, specially padded bike shorts are very much a "worth it" investment.
Eating for Weight Loss
Biking can help you lose weight fast — but if you're not careful, you can cancel out all that work with careless choices in the kitchen. The good news is that you might not need to count calories at all if you keep your cycling activity ramped up and focus on maintaining the key principles of a healthy diet. These include:
- Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables
- Choosing whole grains instead of refined grains
- Opting for low-fat or no-fat dairy foods
- Eating high-quality lean proteins, including fish, poultry, nuts and seeds
- Limiting your intake of sodium, added sugars and unhealthy saturated and trans fats
If you'd like to have more deliberate control over the pace of your weight loss, or if you're not losing weight and want to figure out why, it's time to start a food diary and track how many calories you're consuming through both food and drink. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a useful chart for estimating your ideal calorie intake according to gender, activity level and age.
Those numbers are for maintaining weight. So, if you're not cycling enough to burn more calories than you take in, you'll need to either add more physical activity or decrease the number of calories consumed. According to the National Institutes of Health, most people can safely lose weight on a diet of 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day for women, or 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day for men.
If you choose to decrease your calorie intake, it becomes even more important to fill up on nutrient-rich foods so your body gets the fuel it needs to support all that biking. Also, make sure not to go below the just-mentioned minimum intakes without support and guidance from a medical professional.
Biking Through Barriers
Okay, so you have a few pounds to lose and you happen to love a type of exercise that's great for weight loss. What could possibly go wrong? Life, that's what — because for many people, simply finding the time to work out can be a big barrier to getting or staying, fit.
Luckily, you can break your biking workouts into multiple chunks and spread them through the day. As long as you bike for at least 10 minutes at a time, you'll still be getting the health benefits of your workouts.
You can also burn more calories in less time by increasing workout intensity. That could mean biking up hills, simply biking faster or mixing occasional sprint intervals into your routine.
Other strategies for finding that little bit of extra workout time include blocking workout time out in your calendar, just as you'd do for a business meeting. Consider biking at least partway to work or for errands and using bike-friendly public transit for the rest. Replace the chair in front of the TV with a stationary bike so you can pedal and watch at the same time — invite your friends along so you can socialize as you ride.
Cycling for weight loss is often a winning proposition — but that's not the only thing it'll do for you. Just a few of the benefits of cycling regularly or doing other types of physical activity include a lower risk of heart disease, improved mood and cognition and better quality of life.
Regular exercise may also reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including some cancers, while improving your insulin and blood sugar levels.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- MedlinePlus: "Benefits of Exercise"
- National Institutes of Health: "Healthy Eating Plan"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2: Estimated Calorie Needs Per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Chapter 1. Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns"