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  Latest update: 4/12/2023

Bicycling and Weight Management/Control

In addition to maintaining cardiovascular health, providing an outlet for competitive urges, and enjoying the camaraderie of riding with friends, cycling helps to maintain your weight. There are surgical quick fixes available - gastric banding and plastic surgery - but with its health benefits, cycling provides much preferred long term outcomes.

There is an epidemic of obesity in the US and western Europe, with current statistics indicating that more than 50% of American adults are either overweight or obese. Although studies have suggested a role for genetics, our genes have been the same for thousands of years but only recently has obesity increased so dramatically. And the idea that some of us have a low "Resting Energy Expenditure" (REE) which puts us at increased risk of gaining weight on a normal diet (when compared to our peers) has been laid to rest as well. Gaining too much weight is a combination of:

And it doesn't take much of an imbalance. Just 300 Calories a day, which could easily be offset by an hour of easy cycling per day, is enough.

The National Weight Control Registry is an 8 year old project that has studied weight loss in over 3500 extremely obese patients who were able to lose, and maintain, an average loss of 60+ pounds. The common factor?? A high level of physical activity (an average weekly expenditure of 2545 exercise Calories in women and 3293 Calories in men - equal to an hour of moderate physical activity per day) while maintaining an intake of 1500 Calories per day. These Calories were eaten in 4 to 5 small meals throughout the day rather than skimping on breakfast/lunch with a much larger meal at night. Most had previously failed in maintaining weight loss achieved on other weight loss regimens, and almost universally attributed the success of this program to a sustained increase in the weekly level of physical activity.

Physical activity:

Weight loss occurs when the number of Calories expended ("burned"") over a 24 hour period is greater than the number eaten. The net deficit (covered by Calories from the fat reserves) equals weight lost. 1 pound of body fat = 3500 Calories.


Cycling increases daily Caloric output in several ways. Calories are used to move you and the bicycle against gravity and the resistance of air. And a more indirect effect is by subtly changing in your daily routine to include more physical activity (such as walking up a flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator) as a result of your increased sense of vigor and well-being.

Many dieters worry that increased physical activity will increase their appetite. However a recent carefully controlled study of overweight individuals did not find a significant increase in appetite with exercise. In fact, vigorous exercise actually suppressed appetite for several hours, suggesting that this short term effect provides an effective appetite control strategy if you plan your exercise session to precede the major meal of the day.

Regular exercise also increases your basal metabolism rate or BMR (the number of Calories utilized by the body at rest to maintain basic life processes). An increased BMR results from all aerobic conditioning activity and can be maintained with as little as 30 to 40 minutes of exercise 3 to 4 times a week. One study indicated that the increase in BMR with regular exercise is even more pronounced in the older athlete.

Not only does your 24 hour basal metabolism rate increase with regular exercise, there is an additional 12 hour post-exercise boost. As a rule of thumb, this can add 15 bonus Calories for every 100 Calories burned during the aerobic activity. If you are working hard to shed pounds, you might use this post exercise bonus to your advantage , you might think about two rides a day - perhaps in the morning and after work. This BMR bonus is well documented. This article reviews the subject, providing a reference with solid evidence for the post exercise increase in expended Calories compared to a non exerciser. But, and there always seems to be a caveat, this bonus occurs ONLY with vigorous exercise in the range of 70 - 80% of your VO2max.

Finally, regular physical exercise protects muscle mass (at the expense of fat) during periods of weight loss. In two groups (one active and one more sedentary) with an equally negative Caloric balance and an equal weight loss, the exercise group will lose less muscle mass than the diet only group.

A common question is whether exercise can facilitate selective fat loss from the limb(s) exercised i.e. can fat be taken off the thighs by bicycling. Unfortunately this doesn't happen. Take the extreme example of a regular or professional tennis player who uses one arm almost exclusively. Comparison of fat fold thickness in both arms will NOT demonstrate a difference or asymmetry between them. Thus any exercise will promote fat loss from the body as a whole but cannot be targeted to any specific body area. However, there is still the benefit of improving the tone of the muscle or muscle groups exercised which has the same apparent affect to "slim" the area.


When you are working to lose weight, it makes sense that any exercise should be equivalent when it comes to expending a few extra Calories. It is true that a Calorie is a Calorie, but when it comes to weight loss, Calories eaten are also part of the final equation. And it appears that swimming has a significant effect, increasing a swimmer's post workout appetite and in turn Caloric replacement.

Comparing the weight loss benefits of swimming, cycling, and walking with equal levels of Caloric expenditure, swimmers lost significantly less weight. And on further investigation, it looks as if the explanation was a subtle increase in the post workout Caloric intake. Even more interesting, the temperature of the water made a difference. Swim in a warm pool and you blunt the appetite enhancing effect. The increased heat conductance (away from the skin) seems to be the important variable with water conducting heat away from the skin better than air. That is why you put a frozen steak in a pot of water if you want it to thaw quickly versus letting it set on the counter.

This shouldn't be an issue for cyclists - even in cool weather, dressing warmly should minimize skin cooling and blunt this effect.

SHORT CUTS - Riding slow, caffeine

Some authors have suggested that riding at slow speeds (<50% VO2 max) is preferred for a weight loss program as more of the Calories expended will be supplied from fat tissue storage at lower levels of exercise. Let's look at this argument in more detail. If you ride at 65% VO2max, your body's fat stores will provide about half of your Caloric needs and the other half will come from glycogen reserves. At 85% VO2max, the relative number of Calories supplied from fat fall to about one third of the total number expended with the balance again coming from glycogen reserves. However, if one looks at the absolute numbers, a fit cyclist riding 30 min at 65% VO2max will burn about 220 Calories (110 fat Calories, 110 Calories from carbohydrate or glycogen stores). The same cyclist, riding at 85% VO2max will burn an additional 100 Calories (total of 320 Calories over the 30 minutes), with 110 Calories still coming from fat and the balance of 220 coming from carbohydrates. So even though fat provides a smaller percentage of the total energy needs, the actual number of fat Calories burned during the 30 minutes of exercise remains unchanged.

Even if the duration of the faster ride were shortened so that total Calories expended were equal (but proportionally more fat Calories with the slower pace) during both rides, a recent study at Georgia State University demonstrated an equivalent weight change i.e. there was no support for the idea that metabolizing fat for energy resulted in a greater weight loss. Another study at West Virginia U. study assigned 15 women to a low intensity (132 beats per minute) or high intensity (163 bpm) exercise group, both exercising for 45 minutes, 4 times a week. There was a decrease in overall body fat the high intensity group, but not the low intensity one, further evidence that it is total Calories expended, not the source of those Calories (CHO vs. fat) that makes the difference in an exercise supported weight loss program.

It is the final balance between total Calories burned (from ANY source - carbohydrates, fats, or protein) and those eaten (i.e. the NET NEGATIVE CALORIC BALANCE) that determines whether weight is gained or lost. The advantage of riding more slowly is that it may make the ride a more enjoyable experience for the novice rider, and the pace can be maintained for hours. If you have only a limited amount of time to ride, the faster your average speed, the more Calories you will burn and the more weight you will shed.

In fact there has been speculation that when you exercise at a slow pace, and preferentially burn fat Calories while maintaining muscle glycogen stores, any post ride carbohydrate loading may find the "tank full" (i.e. muscle glycogen stores) so to speak, and any additional carbohydrate Calories will be converted into fat instead. The bottom line is to ride at a pace that is comfortable for you, push yourself occasionally for the cardiovascular benefits, and avoid eating more Calories than you expend if your goal is to lose weight.

It has been suggested that caffeine (3 to 4 cups of coffee) per day, might enhance fatty acid metabolism and facilitate weight loss. There is no evidence to support this idea, perhaps from the fact that the regular use of caffeine eliminates its physiologic effects.


This article suggests a successful weight loss program may correlate with a "re-setting" of your body's cell sensitivity to the effects of the hormone insulin - important in carbohydrate metabolism. The medical literature supports the beneficial effects of exercise on carbohydrate metabolism, not only by its direct, insulin independent movement of carbohydrate into exercising cell (thus decreasing demands on the pancreas cells that make insulin) but also to increase insulin effectiveness (which translates into a decreased demand on the pancreas). This enhancement of the effectiveness of insulin lasts up to 16 hours after a bout of strenuous exercise.

So not only will an exercise program help you lose weight, it could be a wise lifestyle change to maintain the changes in your insulin/carbohydrate metabolism and increase your odds of long term success.


The Zone by Barry Sears takes a unique approach to weight loss. He claims that his relatively high fat diet (40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, 30% fat vs the usual athlete's diet of 60/15/25) not only provides increased athletic performance but also promotes weight loss. Although this idea has been questioned and performance experts are appropriately skeptical as to the benefits of fat in supporting aerobic exertion, recent evidence has suggested that a diet can be too low in fat and groups on higher fat (percentage wise) diets do effectively lose more weight. (When used in a diet, a 33% fat diet was more effective in achieving weight loss than a 20% diet. Int J Obesity 2001:25:1503-1511.)

According to his theory, too much carbohydrate intake causes obesity as well by stimulating the pancreas to release excessive amounts of insulin. He then speculates that over time the body becomes resistant to insulin causing the pancreas to secrete even larger quantities. And these high levels stimulate fat synthesis. The question remains as to whether this is a case of putting the cart before the horse with obesity, not high carbohydrate intake, leading to insulin resistance at the cell level with a secondary overproduction by the pancreas. And insulin sensitivity can be restored by weight loss.

To keep the controversy alive (see the study quoted two paragraphs above), a recent Cornell University study of volunteers on an ad lib (eat as much as you want) diet of either high (37%) fat or low (22%) fat content for 11 weeks demonstrated that those on a low fat diet ate fewer Calories and lost an average of 5.5 pounds - twice the loss of those subjects on the higher fat diet.

Another study in a British medical journal showed that obese subjects who lost weight maintained their weight loss better on a high carb diet. Again, it appeared that it was easier to eat excess Calories with a high fat than a high carbohydrate diet. And fewer Calories means less weight gain. And the best diet is plant based, naturally high in fiber and complex carbohydrates and low in fat. There aren't many overweight vegetarians!



The following recommendations (from a conference presentation by Dr. William Gavin, MD) make a lot of sense to me.

"Patients who are overweight have an excess carbohydrate intake for their particular body habitus. The key for these people to lose weight is to reduce their carbohydrate intake in the short term. I believe the Zone diet works best if modified to include carbohydrate restriction at night. It is important to remember that although Calories may be taken in the form of carbohydrate, they will not be stored as carbohydrate in the body. The body stores only a limited amount of glycogen in the liver and muscles. After a body has filled those stores, excess Calories, even from carbohydrate, are stored as fat. My own particular regimen would involve the following:


Q.I have been on the South Beach diet (low carbohydrates) and just cannot ride like I have in the past. Suggestions? - JC

A.If you are in a state of Calorie deficit (which you need to lose weight), and also are eating minimal carbohydrates to supply those Calories, you have very little muscle glycogen - which means you can exercise at approximately 50% VO2max at best. And of course, you don't want to add back in excess daily carbohydrates or you lose the weight loss benefits. My recommendation is to calculate (approximately) the number of Calories you will use on the upcoming ride, and then eat the appropriate amount of carbohydrates to supply them either 2 hours before the ride, or split them between the 2 hour pre-ride meal and the snacks on the bike. If you eat what you will burn, you should have the energy to exercise but none of the excess Calories to store as fat later on.

Q.I am totally confused! I go on a bike ride each day to lose weight and burn 200 Calories, but then I also have an energy drink to reload glycogen into muscles which is 200 Calories. Therefore I have lost no weight? So how can I cycle to lose weight if I should be reloading my muscles afterwards? - AW

A.You are correct - if you replace the Calories you burn, you will not lose weight. You replete muscle glycogen (only completely depleted after you have riden the equivalent of 2000 Calories) when you plan on riding at >50% VO2max the next day (that is the break point where you begin to transition to burning glycogen instead of just fat for energy). If you want to lose weight you need to burn more Calories than you ingest. Only replete completely if you are going into a competitive event OR don't care about losing weight.

Q.I have about 40 pounds to lose. I was doing no exercise and was eating a diet (Weight Watchers guidelines) that was allowing me to merely maintain my weight. So I got the bright idea to dust off my bike and start riding to work 3 days a week. This is about 10 miles and has some really good hills. It ends up taking me about an hour to do the 10 mile ride. I have been doing this for 8 weeks now and have not lost one single pound! I've been eating the same diet, so what's up? I really want to keep riding because I can tell I'm becoming more fit: I have more energy and I don't have to stop on the big hills anymore. I'm sure it's good for my heart and hopefully decreasing my risk of other diseases - S.

A. 10 miles is around 300 Calories, when ridden at your speed (covered over an hour). My guess is that the 900 Calories per week are being subtly covered by your diet - unless you are extremely meticulous about weighing your portions. So I think you have two choices - and maybe a combination. First, you can increase your mileage - each mile is 30 Calories. And the other is to be even more focused on your portion sizes. Although it has never been proven, I also think that if you get your heart rate up to 80% max for 30 minutes 3 or 4 times a week, your metabolism remains reved up even when you get off the bike. So as a final thought, you could try to increase your speed (to get your heart rate to 80% max for your age group).

Q. I am new to cycling, something I have recently taken up to improve my fitness and also to loose some weight. Having only recently started to ride on the road, I have a circuit that I do on a regular basis, it's a 10 mile circuit and I have been riding it against the clock; my initial circuit taking 58 minutes and 4 weeks later my time is down to 33 minutes. The circuit is pretty hilly and is also prone to be windy so I find it a good challenge.

I ride the circuit Saturday and Sunday mornings before breakfast and twice more in the week after work. However although I am getting fitter, I rarely loose any weight, in fact I will gain a half pound here and there. I have just recently started to cycle to work which is a 2.2 mile run there. I cycle home at lunch, return after lunch and cycle home at the end of the day. Each way is a steady 8 minutes. I have found that the next day I have lost weight and continue to do so for a couple of days.

Is this something you see a lot of ? - PM

A. Weight loss requires that Calories used > Calories eaten. How hard you ride is not a critical factor (although for any set distance, the harder you ride - faster you go - the more Calories you will burn). I wonder if you eat a little more (remember that it only has to be a few hundred Calories a day) on weekends when you are relaxed and around food at home. The most common mistake dieting riders make is that they get hungry after a ride, and then feel they have earned the extra food, but don't watch their Calories. And the weight creeps up.

Q. I started cycling seriously this year and fell in love with the sport. Being very competitive I want to get as close as possible to my full potential. When it comes to my weight I definitely feel as if I could shed few pounds, I am now 180 lbs. but I definitely have few extra pounds of body fat I need to lose (aiming towards the 170 lbs.) Most of my training is at night time when I have some time on my hands (working during the day). In your website I understood that eating carbohydrates at night is a big "no no" if you aiming to lose weight, yet in the Post Recovery Ride chapter you really emphasis that eating carbohydrates before and after hard training is very important.

With no carbohydrates at night, training as hard as I want/need at night is hard, in the last 2 days I've been eating only vegetables, eggs, tuna and no carbohydrates at night doesn't make me feel full before going to sleep, and even kind of weak. I definitely don't want to do any damage to my body or slowing down my training due to improper diet. I guess my question is this, trying to lose few lbs. how should my diet look like considering my training schedule? - A

A. There are two strategies in conflict in your training program.

  1. Losing weight which means you should be in a Calorie (and Carbohydrate) deficit and thus may not have maximal carbohydrate stores in your muscles and liver to power performance at 100% VO2max.
  2. Wanting to maximize your performance.

Long term, if you want optimal performance on a ride (especially multiple day rides), you need to assure that you have adequate carbohydrate stores for the days ride on board. If it is to be a multiple day rice, you need to focus on repleting the Calories you expended after each days ride so you don't slowly become glycogen deficient over the series of rides. If the ride is less than 1 - 1 1/2 hours a day, you won't need to be quite as focused.

But to lose weight, you want to be in a state of negative Calorie balance, and as a result, the muscles to be glycogen deficient so that your body is forced to convert fat into carbohydrates which you then use the next ride. However, when you are in negative Calorie (and carbohydrate) balance, you will not have completely replaced muscle glycogen and not feel as good when you ride, especially when you get up in the range of 70 - 100% of VO2max where carb Calories become much more important to fuel the muscles. As an example, a friend of mine using the South Beach diet (very low in carbs) said training was a real chore. But he did lose weight.

So you need to decide if losing weight is the goal, or training to your max while maintaining your current weight. This does not mean you cannot train and lose weight, just that you should then focus on longer, slower rides (to burn those extra Calories) with fewer intervals until you hit the weight goal.

Thus, during the period of time in which you are trying to lose more weight, you'll have to "suffer" a little in training to "force" your body to replete your muscle carbohydrate stores (depleted by exercise) from fat metabolized into carbohydrates. And most likely feel weaker than usual, especially on the bike. When you finally hit your ideal weight, and are ready to work harder with more intervals in order to maximize my performance, you will again add carbohydrates, even at night (as long as you don't eat more Calories than you burn, or you will gradually gain weight).

All questions and suggestions are appreciated and will be answered.

Cycling Performance Tips
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