Cycling for Weight Loss: Our Top 5 Tips

Your bike is one of your best weight loss tools, here’s how to stay fit and shed excess body fat whilst cycling.

Published: Wednesday 04 August 2021

Cycling Weight Loss

For many, cycling is their go-to mode of commuting and/or a fun pastime. But going for a cycle is also a great way to keep fit and lose some excess body fat. Whether you’re cycling to work, riding round the park at the weekends, or on the exercise bike at the gym, the health benefits of cycling are evident. Research has looked into the mental and physical benefits of outdoor exercise in particular. Granted you have access to a bike, there’s little stopping you from getting out there and going for a ride. With that said, there are some things to consider when cycling with a weight-loss goal in mind, so we’ve put together our top 5 tips in this health centre article.

1. Longer versus shorter cycles

Whilst going for longer cycles at a slower pace will burn some calories, this approach isn’t nearly as effective as more intense, shorter cycles that raise the heart rate and use more muscle strength. If weight loss is your goal, don’t rely solely on the longer, leisurely-paced rides for quick results; shorter bursts of cycling are also a more efficient use of your time and easier to slot into your current week.

One of the best methods of maximising your time on your bicycle is to do intervals. Intervals are simply sets of short sprints or cycling at a faster pace alternated with recovery periods. For example, you might go as fast as you can for 30 seconds, and then cycle at a slow pace on an easy gear for 1 minute to recover, before repeating this anywhere from 5 to 10 times. You may also want to incorporate hills into your ride to increase the intensity, either with genuine inclines or by replicating this in the gym by increasing your resistance.

With that said, start with what you think you’re capable of, and if doing slower, longer cycles is more enjoyable for you, you’ll be more likely to continue to momentum and build a habit. You don’t want to be dreading your cycling workout, so there’s no harm in starting slow and seeing if you can build the intensity in future rides when you get more comfortable. Enjoying your workout is key to maintaining this positive routine.

2. Use your commute

In our opinion, cycling is one of the most fulfilling methods of getting to work. Not only is it a quick way of completing a shorter journey, it will save you money on fuel, or bus and train fares. Most importantly, it’s a great way to regularly exercise and keep fit. Because your commute is necessary (unless you work from home!), the decision-making process of whether or not you should go for a cycle is stripped out of the equation, so it’s easier to get active and start building a habit that will soon become second nature. The NHS recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week, meaning if you commute 15 minutes each way during weekdays, you’ll hit your minimum target with your commute alone! [1]

3. Control your consumption

Unless you are cycling for more than an hour, you are unlikely to need to eat or drink anything other than water during your cycle. It may be tempting, but overloading on extra carbohydrates isn't necessary assuming you didn’t start your ride with a completely empty stomach. Once you’ve finished your ride, it’s important that you eat some food to recharge so you can speed up recovery and avoid fatigue. What you eat to refuel is important; focus on lean proteins such as eggs, chicken or tofu, and complex carbs like whole grain rice, pasta or sweet potato. Avoid eating food that’s high in saturated fats such as junk fast food, as any boost in energy will be short lived compared to complex carbohydrates and you’ll soon feel hungry again.

It’s also important to look at your diet as a whole, and reduce the intake of unhealthy and highly calorific foods. Foods like cookies or chocolate bars have a high concentration of calorie-dense added sugars, so if you are after a sweet snack, try fruits and vegetables that contain naturally occurring sugars instead. Junk food such as cheap fast food is high in saturated fats, and regular consumption of these will increase body fat whilst building cholesterol levels in your arteries. Despite these not being favourable foods to eat regularly, we’re not suggesting that you entirely eliminate them from your diet and go cold turkey on them. This approach can increase your cravings in the short term, and lead to binge eating unhealthily. Besides, if completely removing your favourite foods takes a hit on your happiness, this will likely be counteractive to your fitness goals and general mental health, so feel free to keep them in your diet but in smaller quantities or frequencies.

Our last food tip is to stop eating before you are full. The stomach communicates with the brain via the release of satiety hormones to let us know to stop eating, but this message can be delayed depending on how fast you eat. Research indicates the delay between stomach fullness and feeling satiated can be up to 20 minutes[2]. This means we have a tendency to eat more than we need to at meals, especially if we’ve overestimated portion sizes and are intent on finishing everything on our plates. To combat this, try stopping eating before you are completely full. Wait a few minutes, and if you still feel hungry (not peckish, but actually hungry!) then continue eating.

4. Don’t forget about muscle mass

When working out for weight loss, the natural tendency is to work on low to moderate intensity aerobic exercise to maximise calorie expenditure, but maintaining or building muscle mass is often overlooked. Since muscle uses 3 times as many calories as fat, having more muscle mass will increase fat loss[3]. You can ensure you’re maintaining or building muscle in your legs by engaging in hill climbs, or upping the resistance on a cycling machine. Your upper body muscle, however, will not benefit from cycling alone, so you should supplement your cycling with upper body strength exercises like free-weight lifting or resistance machines. Also make sure to consume enough protein to support this muscle growth.

5. Get started!

The hardest part is getting the ball rolling. Feeling like you lack energy shouldn’t hold you back, as exercise itself gives you the feeling of being energised, and with each ride and each pound lost, you’ll gain more and more energy. A burst of endorphins - your body’s natural pain killers - are released during a workout which help you perform and keep you going strong.

Breaking a rut is the hardest stage of behaviour change, but once you’ve built cycling into your routine and formed a habit, it becomes increasingly easier to get out there and do it without thinking twice about it. Every journey starts with that first step, so give it a try and you are unlikely to regret it!

Toby Watson

Written by: Toby Watson

Pharmica Medical Writer

Toby (BSc) is an experienced medical writer, producing educational articles on many areas of health including sexual health, fitness, nutrition and mental health.

He particularly enjoys debunking misconceptions around heath conditions and their treatments, researching each topic in detail and writing easily-accessible content.

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