How to Lose Weight While Cycling

Got a few unwanted pounds to shed? Hop aboard the first “exercise machine” you ever owned—a bike.

Selene Yeager

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Spinning those pedals provides a fat-scorching workout that’s gentle on the joints, and actually fun to do, no matter how much you weigh. Here are eight easy ways to get leaner by bike.

SPIN BEFORE BREAKFAST: Set up your trainer in a pleasant, convenient spot and saddle up each morning for 20 minutes before breakfast. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology reported that you burn fat better riding in a fasted state than when you’re fueled up. Though you wouldn’t want to try to do your longest, hardest workouts unfueled, this simple morning start up will burn more than a 1,100 calories a week and fire up the fat-burning process. It’s a trick pro cyclists have employed for decades, says Andrew Pruitt, Ed.D., director of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado. “When I traveled with USA Cycling, the riders couldn’t have breakfast until they pedaled 20 minutes.”

HIT IT HARD: Okay, okay. This one may not be easy per se. But it is fast. Real fast, which cycling lets you be without beating you up the same way, oh, say, sprinting down the street in your running shoes would. Research—most of it done on stationary bikes (presumably because it’s safer and easier than treadmills) shows that high-intensity sprint cycling helps get you lean, mean, and fit fast.

Just 30 seconds of big gear, full-throttle sprinting sends your levels of human growth hormone (which helps boost lean muscle and burn fat) soaring 530 percent. Other research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that just two weeks of alternate-day interval training boosted cyclists’ fat-burning ability by 36 percent. Short sprint workouts also raise your metabolism so you keep burning fat after you’ve racked the bike and hit the showers. Laval University researchers found that even when sprinters burned half as many calories during their actual workouts, they still lost nine times more fat in the long run as those who went longer (and burned more calories) at one easy speed.

WEAR LYCRA: Ditch the baggies and buy a Lycra cycling kit. It’ll keep you honest at your next all-you-can-eat buffet and prevent unwanted pounds. According to Cornell University weight loss researcher Brian Wansink, “signal clothes” like fitted pants help us track our weight gain and loss. Without snug clothes to sound the alarm, the needle on the scale inches up quickly. Wansink’s team found that prison inmates gained an average of 20 to 25 pounds six months into incarceration (despite abysmal food and plenty of time to exercise) without recognizing the gain because the baggy shapeless orange jumpsuits give no feedback. For active folks, there are no more unforgiving signal clothes than skin-tight Spandex cycling attire. Buy some with no room to spare and keep them in heavy rotation.

GET OFF THE BEATEN PATH: An hour of off-road riding burns more than 600 calories an hour—more than cruising the same period of time on the road—and it works your whole body, not just your legs. Pulling over rocks, roots, and logs builds muscles in your arms, back, chest, and core. Trade your skinny tires for your fat ones a few times a week to rev your calorie burn and shed your spare.

HEAD TO THE HILLS: Hills burn a lot of calories in quick order. They also build your core strength. Four-time Leadville winner and world champion mountain biker Rebecca Rusch uses standing hill drills to chisel her amazing upper body. Find a 10-minute climb and do a series of three hill repeats on it, alternating between standing and sitting, so you spend about half the hill charging out of the saddle. Standing not only raises your heart rate so you burn more calories, but also builds strong lean muscle in your shoulders, triceps, and core muscles as you rock the bike beneath you and power your way to the top.

PEDAL FROM HERE TO THERE: Commuting by bike—even for just all those short trips around town—is often not much longer time-wise as sliding into the bucket seat and firing up the car, and it helps peel off pounds. One study found that the average bicycle commuter loses 13 pounds in the first year without overhauling their diet or doing other exercise.

EAT ON THE GO: Cycling allows you to do what few other exercises do—eat while you do it. How does that help you lose weight? Because you can fuel for your workout specifically without overeating before and after—a common exercise-weight loss saboteur. Next time you go for a long spin, take some fig bars, a banana, and other pocket fuel and aim to take in about 200 to 250 calories an hour. You’ll still finish the ride in the red, but won’t be ravenous, so you can eat normally for the rest of the day and gradually lose weight over time.

TRADE THE LA-Z-BOY FOR THE TRAINER: The average person watches nearly three hours of TV a day. Plop your portable trainer in your living room and pedal away to one or more of your must-see primetime shows. You barely have to work up a sweat and you’ll still kill an easy 1,000 calories—enough to drop a pound a week if you do it three or four nights.

Selene Yeager is a certified personal trainer, pro mountain bike racer, and triathlete. She has authored more than two dozen books and writes Bicycling magazine's weekly Fit Chick column.

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