Bicycling is a popular form of exercise, for both recreation and competition. Whether you're cycling in a spin class or navigating the outdoors, using a bike can help you lose thigh fat and build muscle.
Muscle vs. Fat
To slim down your thighs, your focus should be on losing body fat. The bulk of your leg is made of fat and muscle, and you probably don't want to lose muscle tissue. Not only does it help you perform better and make you stronger, it makes you healthier.
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A July 2015 article published in the American College of Sports Medicine's Health and Fitness Journal explains that age-related loss in muscle mass is correlated with a few problems. The first is loss of bone density. Diabetes and heart disease were also related to a loss in muscle mass.
When it comes to losing fat, muscle mass is helpful. Even when at rest, each pound of muscle in a person who trains is burning nine calories per day, according to the paper. Muscles are constantly using energy from your body to rebuild and repair themselves, even if you're not working out.
It might seem counter-intuitive to hold onto your muscle mass if your goal is to make your thighs thinner. However, since your muscles burn calories, they can actually help you burn fat over time.
Cycling Builds Muscle
Even if you wanted to get rid of muscle in your thighs, bicycling would make that very difficult. Your legs are essentially the only thing that powers your bike, so the muscle are very active during cycling. The quadriceps are particularly active. Those are the muscles on top of your thigh that extend your knees.
A July 2015 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that competitive cyclists had very muscular thighs. If you're dedicated to using cycling as a form of exercise to burn fat, chances are you're going to build some muscle along the way. This isn't a bad thing, as long as you're fine with that appearance.
Any form of exercise that burns calories can help you burn fat. You need to get into a "negative energy balance," by burning more calories than you take in. Energy balance is the number of calories you take in every day, minus the number of calories that you burn. Both sides of the equation are important, according to a May 2017 study published in the journal Nutrients.
The number of calories you burn per day is determined by a few things. One is your resting metabolic rate, which is the number of calories you burn at rest. Another factor is the number of calories you burn from activity.
Read more: All the Major Muscles Strengthened by Cycling
Calories Burned from Cycling
On the other side of the equation is the number of calories you eat as food. By either increasing the number of calories you burn, or eating fewer, or both, you can lose weight. The paper from Nutrients explains that exercise not only helps you burn calories; it can suppress your appetite and help you eat less.
Exercise also raises your metabolism, which means that you burn more calories at rest. While diet is important for weight loss, exercise is helpful. If cycling is your preferred form of exercise, you should focus on that.
Depending on what type of bicycling you do, the number of calories you burn from your workout will change. For example, a table from Harvard Health Publications shows the estimated calories burned, for both activity and body weight, for 30 minutes of exercise.
For a 155-pound person, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on a stationary bike burns roughly 260 calories. The same person will burn 391 calories spending the same amount of time doing vigorous cycling.
The table shows that your body weight affects how many calories you burn from exercise. The more you weigh, the more calories you burn from your workout. The intensity of exercise is also a big factor in how many calories you burn.
Cycling for Fat Loss
A small, March 2018 study in the Journal of Education and Training Studies had a group of sedentary women perform spinning workouts. For six weeks, the subjects did three sessions per week. Including both a warm-up and cool down, each session lasted 30 to 60 minutes.
The researchers found that most of the subjects lost body fat. The people who were classified as having obesity at the beginning of the study had shifted down to having overweight. Those who began the study as having overweight had shifted down to having "normal" body fat. This study shows that spinning is an effective form of cycling for weight loss.
Spinning classes are helpful because you have a group of people around to support and push you. There's also music playing, and instruction to keep the workout from becoming boring.
Even if you don't want the loud music and shouting instructors, and are instead looking for something more recreational, you can still lose fat and reap the health benefits. An article from Harvard Health Publishing discussed the health benefits of biking to work, and they include a reduced risk of both heart disease and cancer.
If you decide to bike to work, keep in mind that it can be dangerous to ride in traffic. Wear proper protective gear like a helmet, and try to find the safest routes.
Sprint vs. Continuous Training
When using cycling as a workout, whether you're indoors or outside, you can either ride at a steady pace, or do sprint training. An August 2017 study published in Applied Physiology, Metabolism and Nutrition compared both types of exercise to see which would help more for fat loss.
In the study, the subjects were divided into two groups. Both groups participated in group cycling classes, which were similar to spin classes. The "sprint" group did 30-second sprints, followed by four minutes of rest. The "continuous" group rode at a consistent intensity, until they burned a similar number of calories as the sprint group.
Even though the subjects burned a similar number of calories in each group, the class that did sprints lost more body fat. This study shows that you might want to focus on sprints, as opposed to riding at a steady pace throughout your workout, if you want to lose thigh fat.
While cycling should be enough aerobic exercise to help you burn calories, you should consider adding other forms of activity. Weight training is a helpful addition to your exercise program if you want to lose fat.
An August 2017 paper in Strength and Conditioning Journal gave a few reasons for why sprinting might be better than continuous training. The first of these is that there was a difference in the calorie intake between the two groups.
The other is that sprinting primarily taps into the carbohydrate stores in your muscles. Continuous training, on the other hand, uses fat for energy. There's also a chance that excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) causes the greater calorie burn. EPOC means that your body continues to burn calories even after you're done exercising, and sprinting causes more EPOC than occurs from continuous training.
Do More than Just Cycle
A February 2018 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that young people with obesity who did aerobic and resistance training lost more fat than those who only did aerobic exercise. They also found that the longer the programs went on, the bigger the difference was.
An article from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gives general guidelines for Americans who want to do resistance training. You can use these guidelines to incorporate weight lifting workouts into your routine.
They recommend doing two or more days of weight training per week. Your goal is to work each major muscle group at least twice per week, so you can do two full-body workouts, or split them up and do separate body parts on each day.
Weight training workouts will help you build muscle, burn calories and mix up your workouts. Even if you love cycling, it can get boring if you do it too much, so it's important to switch things up.
Even if your workout routine is perfectly designed and executed, you can have trouble slimming down your thighs. Diet is important for fat loss, because it's one-half of the energy balance equation. Reducing your caloric intake is a quick way to tip your body into negative energy balance and burn fat.
Read more: How to Burn Fat Cycling
Nutrition to Reduce Thigh Fat
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommendations for dieting to lose weight. Changing some of your behaviors, like the speed at which you eat, can help you eat less. Instead of eating your meal quickly, go slow and pay attention to your body. Stop eating when you feel full, instead of trying to clean your plate.
The CDC recommends eating with other people, rather than eating alone. When you eat alone, you tend to eat faster since there's no one to talk to or to distract you. While you're at it, try to eliminate things like watching TV while you eat, which takes your attention away from your meal. That way, you can be mindful of how fast and how much you're eating.
Try to avoid eating when you're stressed out. Instead, eat only when you're hungry. Another piece of advice is to plan out and prepare your meals ahead of time. That way you won't grab something unhealthy just because it's fast and convenient.
Try these behavior changes to cut your calorie intake and lose more fat. Proper diet, combined with exercise, can help you cut calories and burn thigh fat, making your thighs thinner and more defined.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Improving Your Eating Habits"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Concurrent Aerobic Plus Resistance Exercise Versus Aerobic Exercise Alone to Improve Health Outcomes in Paediatric Obesity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: "The Effect of Sprint Training for Reducing Body Fat in Women"
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism: "Sprint Interval and Moderate-Intensity Cycling Training Differentially Affect Adiposity and Aerobic Capacity in Overweight Young-Adult Women"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Biking to Work Linked to Reduced Risk of Heart Disease, Cancer, and Early Death"
- Journal of Education and Training Studies: "Effect of Spinning Cycling Training on Body Composition in Women"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- Nutrients: "Dynamic Energy Balance: An Integrated Framework for Discussing Diet and Physical Activity in Obesity Prevention—Is it More than Eating Less and Exercising More?"
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: "Unique Muscularity in Cyclists' Thigh and Trunk: A Cross‐Sectional and Longitudinal Study"
- ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal: "Build Muscle, Improve Health"
- European Journal of Preventative Cardiology: "European Journal of Preventative Cardiology"