Cycling and Weight Loss Part 1: Riding the Bike to Lose Weight

A champion

A champion

This is the first of a series of posts about riding the bike to lose weight.  Throughout this discussion of losing weight it’s important to keep in mind that eating has many consequences for health, athletic performance and weight gain or loss. We’ll start by focusing purely on weight loss but it is very important to keep in mind that the “best” diet for losing weight is unlikely to be the “best” diet for maintaining your health or a high level of athletic performance.

A lot of people aren’t going to like these posts.  I noted in a recent post that Americans spend about $50,000 on diet industry products and services every 80 seconds, 24/7/365. If you work for 50 years and average $50K a year, Americans spend more on diet stuff in an hour and 10 minutes than you will make in your entire life. 24/7/365.  The people who are spending that money and the people who are raking in the cash from all that stuff are going to be especially unhappy with these posts.  Why?  Because if you’re riding your bike to lose weight, most of that stuff is a waste of time and money.

Many people get into riding the bike as a way to lose weight and others who are interested in the health benefits of riding have weight loss as a secondary goal.  This is a good idea because riding the bike can be a great way to lose weight.

Shoes on scaleThere are a couple of ways to go about this.  One approach is to focus your attention on losing weight.  You buy diet books and scour the internet for info about losing weight.  You pay careful attention to things like how many calories there are per serving size.  You count calories for each meal and snack. You weigh yourself obsessively.  You may fork out money for the advice of a licensed nutritionist.  If you are especially gullible you buy a magic bracelet.

This approach to losing weight is often accompanied by the view that riding the bike is a type of exercise that is going to be used as a weight loss procedure.  Exercise is onerous but you have to do it.  People with this attitude will often want to maximize their weight loss for every minute they have to spend on the bike.  They’ll want to know things like what’s the smallest amount of time they’ll have to spend on the bike to burn X number of calories, what’s the absolute minimum they have to eat on the bike to get through a longer ride and exactly when they should eat in order to survive the ride on this absolute minimum.  They’re always worrying about numbers.  They’re not having much fun.

Happy cyclist_cropHere’s a second approach losing weight on the bike.  Forget about losing weight.  Forget about measuring this and calculating that, about eating so much of this kind of food and so much of that kind of food, about magic bracelets and paying for the advice of licensed nutritionists.   Forget about all of it.  Instead, enjoy riding your bike, ride frequently and consistently, and keep trying to get better at it.  That’s really all you need to do.  You will almost certainly lose weight.

The basic story is very simple.  Your body needs energy to function.  That energy is measured in calories.  The type of calorie that is used when talking about weight loss and nutrition is sometimes called a large calorie or a kilocalorie. One kilocalorie is the amount of energy that is needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

If you are alive, you are burning calories. Calories are burned when you sleep, when you think, when you go through your normal daily activities and when you ride.  The fuel that provides these calories is glucose.  The glucose is derived either from carbohydrates, proteins or fats that are being broken down in the digestive system from food you have recently eaten or from reserves stored in the body.   If there is not enough glucose in the blood stream to fuel ongoing activity, the system starts breaking down stored reserves to get the glucose it needs.  When stored fat is broken down, people start losing the kind of weight they want to lose.

calorie-balanceLosing or gaining weight depends on the balance between the calories you burn and the calories you ingest during the day.  If the calories you ingest are less than the calories you burn, you will lose weight because the system will turn to its stored energy reserves (which include stored fat) to get the energy it needs.  If the input calories are more than the output calories, you will gain weight because the excess calories will usually be stored as fat.  If input and output are about the same, your weight will be stable.  Thinking only in terms of weight loss (and not health or performance), it doesn’t matter if the calories being burned are coming from carbs, proteins, or fats.  A calorie is a calorie. That’s almost all you really need to know.

Almost but not quite.  There’s one important modifying factor to consider that we’ll look at in more detail in the next two posts in this series.  In order to take this modifying factor into account when you’re riding your bike, you need to try to get better every time you ride.  Every time out try to get a little stronger, go a little faster, ride a little longer.  That’s really all you need to do.

Riding like this will result in weight loss for the simple reason that in most cases when you add the calories you burn during the ride to the calories you burn during the rest of the day the total calories burned is greater than the calories you take in by eating.  If you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight.  Simple. And you don’t need to support the diet industry with your hard-earned cash to do it.

People who take the first approach try maximize weight loss by obsessing over how many calories, what kind of calories, when you eat those calories, and all the rest of it.  People who take the second approach try to maximize the enjoyment they get from riding the bike.  They work on spending more time on the bike doing the things they enjoy about riding the bike. When you engage in exercise or athletic activity you’ll burn the calories whether you enjoy what you’re doing or hate it, whether you’re thinking about losing weight or thinking about whatever you think about when you’re having fun.  So, why not give your attention to enjoying yourself and having fun rather than on how much you’ll weigh the next time you get on the scale?

food-nutriiton-bannerWhen you focus on riding the bike because you enjoy it rather than riding the bike as a weight loss procedure all of the questions about calories and weight loss turn into questions about how to be a better rider.  Getting better on the bike usually means increasing your strength and endurance so you can ride harder, longer or faster.  Eating isn’t about minimizing calories anymore, it’s about supporting performance.  As your performance increases and you ride harder, longer or faster, you burn more calories whether you’re trying to lose weight or trying to be a better cyclist.  If you ride hard enough and often enough, you can eat whatever you want because no matter how many calories there are in what you eat, you’ll burn more on the bike and lose weight.

If you don’t really enjoy riding the bike, find another type of exercise that you do enjoy.  If you enjoy something, you’ll want to do it; if you want to do it, you’ll find a way to do it; if you do it, you’ll burn the calories and lose the weight.  Find something energetic that you enjoy, do it frequently and consistently and always try to get better at it and the weight will come off.  It won’t happen overnight, it won’t happen fast, you’ll hit plateaus, but if you keep striving to ride harder, faster, stronger, longer, you will lose weight.

Once you’ve started to lose weight there’s another factor you have to consider which we take a look at in the next post in this series.

27 thoughts on “Cycling and Weight Loss Part 1: Riding the Bike to Lose Weight

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this. Finding an exercise that you enjoy makes it much more likely that you’ll do it consistently.

    “Weight loss” is a difficult metric to track and work on, whilst retaining your sanity. You see day-by-day variations that don’t necessarily correlate with the overall trend.

    Much better to focus on the things you have more control over. How far you cycle, which terrain you cycle over, how hard you work. If you are consistent and see improvement in these more controllable metrics, “weight loss” will follow.

    (I put “weight loss” in speech marks because I think (hope) most people really mean that they want to feel better, be fitter, look better, be more healthy – actual weight loss often happens as well, but it isn’t a one-for-one linkage – a change in body composition from fat to muscle can lead to a slight weight gain, for instance).

    I intereviewed a chap on my blog who had a very inspirational weight loss through cycling story. It is clear that he now loves cycling (I follow him on Twitter – he is very enthusiastic about the whole cycling world):

    http://grimpeurheureux.com/cycling-to-lose-weight-how-one-man-lost-6-stone-by-cycling-more-than-a-third-of-his-bodyweight/

    Best regards
    Andrew

  2. Thanks for this article. I am a fat guy on a bike who rides often and has lost 45 pounds without impacting my food budget. I drink beer for my carbs and really focus on proteins throughout the day. It works! Weekly, I get passed by a group of riders who are usually decked out in their “sponsored” gear. I usually hear something like this, “get out of the way fat boy,” or “fat people shouldn’t ride.” Really? Oh well. Thanks for the post.

    • I’m a fat guy too I’m 5,11 230 I get the jokes too but I’ve build a lot of power on my legs I ride 40 to 50 miles a day and I’m 50 years old and those type of riders I pass I’m doing this for me brought my blood pressure Down cholesterol down they all had a start they just forgot where they came from God Bless see you on the road.

  3. Some people, like myself enjoy looking at the figures and calculations. Setting new PB’s and achieving new goals is fun…so don’t tell people to forget about these.

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  8. I must say that in the many years I have been a cyclist the only factor in terms of weight control has had very little to do with the hours and miles spent on the bike and more with the decisions I have made off of the bike. More specifically food choices and food quantitties. People always assume that since I am an avid cyclist its the riding that keeps me thin. its mopre about food choices and caloric intake that keeps the weight off. Unfortunatley this often means going to bed a little hungry-most people don’t want to hear this but you need to sacrifice in order to improve.

  9. Havent cycled for 4 years.Just pumped my tyres up and rode half a mile around the block.A little out of breath!!The journey of cycling to lose weight starts now.I used to love cycling,so im actually looking forward to it!!

  10. Nice website. Calorie control through eating is a lot easier than starting cycling, for most folks.
    I actually want to lose weight to enjoy cycling more, do bigger event, in a more structured way.

  11. Excellent points, that is exactly how it worked for me.
    I’ve went from 125 to ~90 kgs and I think I can manage my ‘ideal’ weight of 80, despite my bulimia-level obsession with food and extremely ‘stingy’ metabolism.
    A nice side effect of hard working out on a bike is that I’ve grown legs that would not look out of place on a track sprinter or a bodybuilder :).
    But mostly I do it for the sheer enjoyment of it – joy of speed, seeing new places, listening to music and trying to keep up with blast beats of heavy metal… I’d do it even it did more hard then good, heh. But health benefits are substantial.

  12. Can I simply just say what a relief to find someone who actually understands what they’re talking about on the web.
    You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important.

    More people ought to look at this and understand this side of the story.
    I can’t believe you aren’t more popular given that you surely possess the gift.

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  14. This might sound like an unimportant question, but is it a great deal more difficult to ride a bike once a person is overweight? I have not ridden a bike since I was a (thin) teenager and am both much older and heavier. I realize added weight will make it necessary to expend more energy to move the bike, but would it be necessary to even have a special seat, etc.? I’m about 200lbs.

    • Amanda, thanks for your question, it’s a good one.

      Just as you said, excess weight makes riding more difficult simply because you have to expend more effort to move more weight. Every time I’ve gotten out of shape and overweight and started to get back in shape again I’ve realized it’s an unhappy situation. You need the extra strength to move the added weight but you’re out of shape so you don’t have the strength. Then you get back in shape so you have the added strength but you’ve lost the extra weight so you don’t need the strength as much anymore.

      You probably won’t need any special gear on your bike depending on what kind of riding you’re doing. Excess weight will have an effect on serious offroad riding that involves a lot of bouncing like going over large rocks and tree trunks or going through deep gullies. However, most serious offroad bikes have shock absorbers that will help. You can put shock absorbers on a road bike but it’s unlikely you will need them.

      ALuminum bike frames can be very stiff which means they transfer bumps in the road to the rider’s body much more than a bike frame made of a more flexible material like steel or carbon fiber. This is mainly a problem for very light riders, though, because they have a greater tendency to bounce around on the bike.

      There’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation that can be made about seats. Finding the right one depends on personal fit and comfort level. If you haven’t ridden a bike in a long time, you’re butt is going to be sore at first no matter what kind of seat you get. However, if you ride consistently that soreness will disappear fairly quickly. There are all kinds of padded and gel-filled seats on the market and many of these are marketed to inexperienced riders who have an inflated concern with having a sore butt. Be aware that these “comfort” seats may not always be such a good thing. Gel seats in particular can cause more problems that they’re worth. The gel has a tendency to deform into every crevice and seam in your body where your crotch comes into contact with the seat and cause chafing and rubbing in very sensitive areas. You want to avoid chafing and rubbing as much as possible. Soreness that feels something like bruising is going to happen when you start but it will disappear if you ride regularly.

      My best advice is don’t try to do too much too soon. Start slow, be patient, and gradually ramp up your time on the bike over successive rides. Riding a bike is a great way to get in shape and lose weight and it’s also a lot of fun.

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