Cycling Nutrition

Does Cycling Help You Lose Weight?

Struggling with your weight loss goals? You are not alone. Weight loss is one of the most common motivators for exercise—especially around the start of a new year when you’re thinking about resolutions you want to make—so it’s natural to wonder: Does cycling help you lose weight? While we’re all about riding for the joy of it, when weight loss is approached with a healthy mindset and habits, it is a totally reasonable endeavor.

The blunt truth, though, is that “just adding exercise does not equal automatic weight loss,” explains Leslie Bonci, R.D., sports nutritionist at Pittsburgh-based Active Eating Advice and co-author of Bike Your Butt Off.

Although daily exercise like cycling will improve your cardiovascular health, lift your mood, and boost your fitness, you can easily pedal an hour a day and not lose a pound.

Exercising daily is no reason to ignore your diet. Make sure you’re not subconsciously eating more, and that you’re “exercising in a way that encourages fat loss and builds lean muscle tissue,” according to Bonci.

Don’t get discouraged (or hang up your wheels!). It’s not as complicated as it sounds. With the right adjustments to your riding (and fueling) routine, you can pedal off unwanted weight. If you’ve been left wondering, Why can’t I lose weight, we’ve got some answers for you.

1. Remember: All Weight Is Not Created Equal

First things first, the numbers on an average scale tell you one thing: your weight. They don’t tell you what that weight comprises. Though cycling won’t add as much muscle as strength training, if you’re riding regularly enough to have firmer legs or glutes, then you’ve put on some muscle.

You only have to feel your muscles to know that muscle is solid, dense tissue (fat, by contrast, is softer and takes up more space). When you add lean muscle tissue, even if you’ve lost some fat, your clothes will fit better, but the numbers on the scale may barely budge—or even seemingly move in the “wrong” direction by showing weight gain. Those extra pounds are likely extra muscle. Your weight is also influenced by your hydration and glycogen storage, which changes daily. You’ll naturally see your weight fluctuate day to day—even from morning to afternoon to night—so it’s important to keep those numbers in perspective, and not live and die by what the scale says.

2. Dial in Your Diet

What you eat matters a lot. A moderate hour-long spin may burn about 500 calories, depending on your size and fitness level, but eating meals full of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean protein will make a bigger impact. Although many factors, including your genes, determine how you will lose weight in response to exercise, a good rule of thumb to remember: Weight loss is about 75 percent what you eat and 25 percent how much you exercise. Just as you need to add structure to your exercise routine to see results, a little structure goes a long way in improving your eating—and weight loss—says Bonci.

“Eat three meals that are satisfying enough that you can go four to five hours until you eat again,” says Bonci. “Portion your plate so you have half your calories from vegetables and fruits, a quarter from complex carbs, and a quarter from lean protein. Top with healthy fat like nuts, avocado, or olive oil.”

3. Push Your Pace

Fascinating fact: You excrete lost fat through your lungs. Sounds bizarre, but research shows that the process of losing fat involves metabolizing the triglycerides you have stored in your fat cells. Your body burns fat through oxidation (that’s why aerobic exercise is fat-burning). You exhale the waste product (carbon dioxide) as you breathe. Though that’s an extreme simplification of the complicated process, it’s a good visual reminder that pushing the pace enough to be breathing hard will help you lose fat.

Rides that include short, intense efforts (a.k.a., high-intensity interval training or HIIT) are scientifically-proven fat burners. In a well-cited, head-to-head comparison from 2011, researchers from the University of Western Ontario found that riders performing four to six 30-second, full-throttle sprints three times a week burned more than twice as much body fat as riders who rode for 30 to 60 minutes at a moderate, aerobic intensity. To boost your fat burn, add HIIT training to your rides twice a week.

4. Time Your Food

This is a big one. “Riders trying to lose weight will often not eat before or after a ride because they want to burn fat and lose weight,” says Bonci. “Problem is, that nearly always leads to overeating at some point later in the day.” Instead, time your normal meals to fuel your ride. For instance, if you’re riding midday, split your lunch in half. Have half your sandwich half an hour before you go out and eat the rest when you’re done. You can do the same with breakfast. If you’re riding longer and/or harder, take food with you, so you can eat about 200 calories an hour while you ride. Have a small recovery snack like a glass of chocolate milk and a few almonds when you’re done to refuel and replenish, then eat as usual for the rest of the day.

5. Muscle Up Your Metabolism

Cycling builds some muscle (see: calves and quads), but it’s not enough to offset the general muscle loss that happens over time. Losing muscle hurts your metabolism—and makes it difficult to lose or even maintain body weight—and also limits the amount of power you can put into your pedals (to burn even more calories and fat). The solution is strength training. Lift weights two to three days a week to build lean muscle tissue, which will not only make you faster and stronger on your bike but also more metabolically active so you will use more energy all day long.

6. Keep Your Body Guessing

Your body adapts to what you ask it to do—that’s training. If you always do the same thing, it will adapt and your progress will pretty much stall out where you are. Change it up to keep making progress and lose unwanted weight. Look at your weekly rides and plan for each one to be a bit different from the rest. Go long one day; hit the hills another; include steady efforts during which you’re working for 15 to 20 minutes at “race pace” (or right where you can just speak a few words at a time) in another. This strategy trains all your energy systems, so your body has to keep adapting and you avoid plateaus.

7. Count Your Zzz’s

If you’re not getting enough sleep, that may very well be the missing piece to your weight loss puzzle. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2019 concluded that “the less variability in sleep duration or an adequate sleep duration, the greater the success of the lifestyle interventions in adiposity.” Translation? If you’ve already made other lifestyle changes, the more you stick to sleeping both regularly and sufficiently, the more weight you’re likely to lose. According to the study, you should aim for at least seven hours of sleep consistently, if not more. Plus, your body needs it to recover from riding.

8. Make It Fun

Lastly, weight loss is a worthy goal as long as it’s tied to healthy habits. Keep your riding and weight loss journey enjoyable—you don’t want to burn yourself out in the process! It’s important to find a routine that leads to happiness and sustainability.

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