You can’t outride a bad diet
Yes, cycling burns calories a lot more than sitting in front of a TV. But do you know how many? And how does it compare to the number of calories you take in from food? Let’s take a look at an example.
- Cycling at a moderate endurance pace may burn around 500 kcal per hour.
- Now compare that to a typical fast-food menu. A cheeseburger may be something like 600 kcal, a large serving of fries 500 kcal, a large soda is close to 400 kcal, and an ice-cream dessert could be another 500 kcal for a total of 2,000 kcal in one sitting.
You would have to ride for 4 hours to burn off that single meal. Not even the pros spend that much time on a bike every single day. And most regular people do maybe one long ride per week. It’s very clear that if your diet is bad and filled with calorie-dense junk food, then cycling can never be enough to make you lose weight. To be fair, this is true for almost every sport. You simply have to focus mainly on your diet and only think of exercise as a supporting activity. So, why is cycling specifically such a bad idea?
You’re refuelling more than you’re burning
One of the wonderful things about cycling is that it allows you to explore far and wide and discover lots of cool cafes and pastry shops. It also happens that there is a strong culture among cyclists to stop at those shops and refuel with a coffee and the obligatory sweet treat. Every cyclist also knows to pack a bidon full of electrolyte-rich sports drink and several snacks. Putting together the calorie content of your hydration efforts, a banana, a few energy bars, a piece of cake, and a cappuccino, you may be looking at upwards of 1,500 kcal. That can easily be more than you actually burn while riding.
You adapt and burn fewer calories over time
Cycling is great at helping you get in shape. This is generally a good thing. Unfortunately, when it comes to weight loss, it’s a bit counterproductive. The longer you keep up cycling, the easier it will be for your leg muscles to deal with the demands of pedalling. You’ll also be more comfortable and efficient on the bike, which means less wasted movement and better transfer of power into the pedals. All of these things mean fewer calories are needed to maintain the same speed as when you started. Unless you keep track of how much you’re burning on the bike with a power meter, you’re likely to significantly overestimate the calories burned from this activity.
You fall for the fat-burning zone myth
There’s a popular myth out there that there is a specific intensity of exercise called the “fat-burning zone” that’s ideal for those interested in burning fat. It’s based on the fact that at a lower intensity, your body burns primarily fat for energy. It gradually switches to burning carbs as the intensity increases. This is true. But the problem with this theory is that at low intensity, you may be burning a high proportion of fat, but you’re also burning very few calories. That’s simply because you’re just going slow. Going fast burns a lower proportion of fat but much more calories in total.
Cycling is really great at accommodating this low-intensity zone. It feels good to ride in that zone. It also burns so few calories that having as little as a banana for a snack will prevent you from burning much of anything.
You may have noticed that all of the reasons above have solutions. With the right approach, cycling can, of course, be helpful in weight loss, just like all forms of exercise. That’s why the next article in this series will be all about tips to help you do it right.