E-Bike Your Way to Fitness

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

I think most people would agree that electric bicycles have some important advantages over road bikes. For example, they enable you to climb hills you may not be strong enough to ascend on pedal power alone. E-bikes also enable you to keep up with cyclists who are faster and fitter than you are, which makes them ideal options for family rides, where strengths may differ among the riders. Riding an e-bike with the motor running also enables you to talk with fellow e-bike riders, making for a pleasant social outing.

But did you know that e-bikes are also perfectly suited for providing an excellent workout, one that can be an important part of your fitness plan? According to a recent study, which used cyclists new to electric bikes, riders commuting on e-bikes rode faster and with less effort while also increasing their respiration and heart rates enough to get significant fitness benefits.

As the authors of the study put it, “HR [heart rate] and caloric expenditure were both increased significantly above resting levels while riding an e-bike. Although these values were lower than the relative heart and metabolic rate of a regular bicycle, the responses during a simulated 3-mile commute on an e-bike reached “moderate intensity” based on %V̇O2max and MET values… [T]his suggests that e-bike commuting could be part of one’s strategy for accruing the recommended amount of PA [physical activity] for health.”

While it is true that the direct effects of riding an e-bike are less beneficial than those provided by riding a standard road bike, another study found that e-bike riders tend to ride greater distances than road bike riders, which mitigated much of that difference. “Physical activity levels, measured in Metabolic Equivalent Task minutes per week (MET min/wk), were similar among e-bikers and cyclists (4,463 vs. 4,085),” the authors of this study found.  They concluded that “physical activity from travel-related activities is similar for e-bikers and cyclists… Moreover, overall physical activity among both groups was also comparable.”

E-bikes are also perfectly suited for providing an excellent workout. © Profimedia

To put these findings to the test, Bike Radar had cycling coach and elite MTB rider Tom Bell ride an electric mountain bike to see how much of a workout it provided. They measured his heart rate at 198bpm, not quite up to his personal maximum of 208bpm, but certainly close enough to be significant. And Bell himself confirmed many of the benefits cited in these studies. “Electric bikes can help you stay out longer on the bike,” he said. “Even if the average intensity may be lower, there is a big correlation between ride/training duration and fitness improvement, and a lot of aerobic benefits come from increasing ride duration, not just intensity.”

Of course, as with road bikes, you control the amount of exercise you get on an e-bike. For example, you can vary the time your ride out of turbo mode. That will have you riding a bicycle that is significantly heavier than your road bike, which ups the resistance and therefore raises your heart rate and increases endurance and power.

If you want to get serious with your e-bike workout, use a heart rate monitor. This will help you track your physical improvement and ensure that you don’t overtax yourself. It will also provide a numerical framework – beats per minute (bpm) – for your workouts. If you are going to use the monitor, you should talk to a trainer about how to get the most out of it and what the best max heart rate is for what you want to accomplish.

Finally, if you’re e-bike training, don’t avoid hills. Find a nearby hill that suits your fitness, one that is neither too easy nor the Alpe d’Huez, and do repeats of 3 to 5 minutes or one long slog to the top. Or combine both strategies. However you train, you’ll find that – contrary to what you had probably thought – the e-bike is a great way to get and remain fit.