Does cycling make you fatter?

The short answer is no. Eating makes you fatter.

But the long answer is yes. Compared to other types of exercise, cycling makes you fatter, as in your overall body fat percentage and weight will increase.

This is the opposite of what SoulCycle, Peloton, all indoor trainer programs/equipment manufacturers, and the bike industry as a whole would have you believe. According to them, cycling is a great way to lose weight, not make you gain it.

Here is a sad sampling of what you will find if you are thinking about using cycling for weight loss:

[Cycling is] also a good way to help you shed extra pounds. That’s because you can burn an impressive number of calories while you’re pedaling, especially if you cycle beyond a leisurely pace.

Healthline

Cycling promotes weight loss … Assuming you enjoy cycling, you’ll be burning calories. And if you eat well, you should lose weight.

Cyclingweekly.com, 2020

The best way to lose belly fat is by doing cardio workouts, such as running and cycling. 

Tanita.eu, 2020

This theme, that cycling helps you decrease body fat and promotes weight loss, is omnipresent. The above quotes represent an infinitesimally few voices from the overwhelming chorus promoting cycling as a great way to lose fat and lose weight. However, like almost everything else that cycling is widely trumpeted to do, it is a gross distortion of reality and omits all of the key facts and more importantly, the key comparisons.

To start off with, everything is subordinate to eating. Everything. If you don’t have an iron grip on what goes in, then no exercise will have any effect at all on fat loss or weight loss. Cycling fails as a weight loss tool for most people for the same reason that everything fails as a weight loss tool: The activity, no matter how intense, prolonged, badass, or hyped on the Internet, is meaningless without serious control of what you eat. The bitter corollary is that if you have control of what you eat, you don’t have a problem to begin with.

However, let’s give cycling, and any other moderately vigorous activity its due. If you are overweight and go from a completely inert lifestyle to one that involves 10 hours a week of riding, and you maintain some control over what you eat, you are going to lose fat and weight in a short period of time. However, it is highly unlikely that you are going to be satisfied with dropping 10 or 15 pounds.

Why?

First, because society has been telling us since birth that fat is bad, fat is unattractive, fat is lazy, fat is unsuccessful, fat is unhealthy, fat is stupid, fat is moral failure. These things are all lies and harmful, but that doesn’t stop us from internalizing them. So merely losing a few pounds isn’t going to satisfy the person who started cycling to lose weight.

Second, cycling, as compared with at least three other activities, actually creates a biological environment that stimulates weight and fat gain, not weight loss. The first aspect of weight gain through cycling is simply the addition of muscle, which is heavier than fat. But there is another aspect to gaining muscle, and professional cyclists find it out quickly–fat and muscle grow together. More muscle means consuming more calories and gaining MORE fat. For a professional cyclist, it’s the reverse problem: As they diet and try to lose fat, they lose muscle. Since Pro Tour cyclists are already lean to begin with, they seek methods to allow them to continue to lose fat without losing weight. The most famous example of this was Chris Froome’s use of asthma inhalers to suppress muscle loss while dieting.

Cycling makes you weigh more and makes you fatter for other reasons, not only because you put on more (heavy) muscle. Cycling closely mimics isometric activities in that the leg muscles, especially when clipped into the pedal, move in one direction, over and over while in constant time under tension. This means that the muscle groups develop strength only in one fixed position. If you’ve ever tried to “transition” from cycling to running you’ll understand immediately, because running requires you to train your leg muscles in a completely different way. As with isometric exercises, the muscles when cycling get negligible rest on the upstroke; for the most part they are in constant use. The consequence? Your body’s biggest, meatiest muscles require huge amounts of energy in the form of glucose and glycogen to keep going.

This is why cycling mags continually talk about the “400 kcal to 1,000 kcal/hour” burn rate of cycling, but they talk about it as if it’s a good thing. It’s not. For weight loss, it’s horrible. It’s horrible because few people who cycle, let alone beginners, have metabolic systems that have adapted to burning fat, to say nothing of having adapted the muscle fibers used during intense cycling activities. Instead, their muscles rely on glucose and glycogen supplied primarily by the liver, also whatever is stored in their muscles. These substances are energy rich but did not evolve to be used as continuous energy supplies over hours of hard exertion. Such exertion is fueled by the increase in cellular mitochondria, and is how muscles adapt over time, under the right conditions, to being more oxidative, a/k/a fat burning. Glycogen/glucose exist to provide relatively short-term energy bursts for fight-or-flight scenarios, situations such as brief lifts of heavy weights, or, ideally, as a facilitator that engages the more efficient use of fat as a fuel.

Our bodies’ long-term energy source is fat, but muscles, particularly ones that have for decades been trained in car seats, desk chairs, and on couches, take time to shift from being fibers that utilize primarily glucose/glycogen to fibers that utilize fat. The first consequence of cycling is liver depletion of glucose/glycogen which results in what every cyclist recognizes as raging, uncontrollable post-ride hunger. During the ride, if not attended to, it results in bonking, cf. The Great Manslaugher Bonk of 2021.

The bonk. It ain’t pretty.

This hunger is more than equal to and greater than the piddly 450 kcal/hour you burned on the group ride, and it’s one key reason why every middle-aged group ride is absolutely filled with fat bellies.

The glucose/glycogen fueling issue in cycling is worsened by products such as energy shots and the abundant advice to “eat steadily throughout the ride.” This only applies to athletes under the pressures of competition performance. Nothing could be worse for weight and fat loss. The moment you eat or drink anything that contains carbohydrates, your body’s attempts to convert fat into energy via the liver are immediately suppressed in favor of the quicker, cheaper, more easily digested and absorbed food. Humans did not evolve eating “energy chews.” Pure sugars were rare, always seasonal, and came in the form of fruits, which had to be consumed in large quantity to get the sugar pop of a few GUs. Sugar as we know it today didn’t even exist until the English used enslaved Africans in the 1600‘s to create the world’s first sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. Even then sugar was expensive, scarce, and a luxury. Mass-produced sugar came about less than 200 years ago, in the 1800’s, when it first became available and affordable to the many rather than the few.

The energy chew of the pioneers? Salt pork and hardtack.

Cyclists who fuel themselves on sugary shit are not only inviting something horrible called “athlete’s mouth,” but they are precluding forever developing muscle fibers that can fuel off of energy-rich but hard to metabolize body fat. This combination of an activity using the body’s biggest muscles to make them bigger, and fueling them on glucose/glycogen, virtually precludes weight and fat loss through cycling without an unbelievably strict and miserable dieting regimen. And if you can diet like that, why in the world would you want to add cycling on top of that particular misery?

Proponents of cycling as a weight loss method also fail to acknowledge that we already have virtually free activities that require no equipment and are much more effective for weight loss than cycling. Top of the list is running, which slims the leg muscles instead of building them up. Next comes hiking, loosely defined as walking on uneven terrain comprised of dirt or unstable surfaces. Last is walking.

These three activities are far superior to cycling for weight loss. They are not isometric, and when the surfaces are uneven, up-and-down, and loose, they utilize the musculature of the entire body, including the core, for proprioceptive balance. As importantly, they suppress appetite.

Why? Because as weight-bearing, ballistic activities, they exert force upon the bones and the combined muscle/fascia system. These systems are both endocrine organs that, through crosstalk between the two, control the metabolic state of the body. The skeletal system produces osteokines, while muscles produce myokines, one of the most potent of which is interleukin-6, the key interleukin linked to appetite suppression via the brain and its interplay with osteocalcin. Studies aren’t conclusive as IL-6 was only discovered in 1991, but the trend seems to show that cycling, because it is non-weight bearing and has no basis in the evolutionary process, doesn’t have the same effect as running/walking, which would also help explain cycling’s ravenous post-ride EAT EVERYTHING NOW syndrome.

This too makes sense. People used to run and walk long distances for hours, days, weeks, even months with minimal food, and the body evolved mechanisms to suppress the ensuing hunger, and to maximally utilize the richest energy store, a/k/a fat. Interleukin-6 is not produced in similar quantities during cycling, ergo ravenous hunger. If you’ve plateaued on your weight loss goals as a cyclist, now you know why. Your choices are grimly strict dieting or splitting time on the bike with something else.

Of course it’s sad that cycling is promoted for its questionable weight loss propensities. The beauty of riding a bike has nothing to do with the size of your stomach. The beauty of riding a bike is freedom, self-propulsion, maneuverability, being outdoors, and independence. These virtues are available to every person of every body type. Health in the modern sense is a chimera because it’s always tied to weight, fat, and the “right” body type. Doubt me? Look at virtually every cycling model ever. The amazing thing about bikes is that you don’t have to look any especial way to be happy riding one.

Like the rest of the Internet’s lies, this one claims needless victims. So what if you’re overweight and so what if you get more so riding your bike? The joy, beauty, and reward of the thing … is the thing.

END

14 thoughts on “Does cycling make you fatter?”

  1. 100% agree with you on this one that cycling actually makes me gain weight, mostly because it increases my hunger much more than calories burned. I actually think the trainer is even worse in that regard because im only on it 45 min or so but still eat like I did a 3hr ride outside.

    Regardless, what biking does (even on the trainer) is makes me more conscious of my food and makes me actually crave healthier choices. So even though the pure act of biking does not help me lose weight, it helps me eat better overall which thus helps me control weight, if that makes sense (i have actually lost weight this winter on the trainer…but due to diet not the bike!)

    Whats your major beef with all these bike companies? Yes, they are trying to sell a product and has marketing that stretches the truth. Same thing that has been done since the beginning of time. At least in this case there might be those few individuals that do benefit from it, even if most wont.

    If you want to direct your venom at anything, take a stab at the dietary supplement industry. It has virtually no regulation and no research to prove it does anything. People expect to pop a pill and get better, at least with the trainer companies people are aware they will have to at least get off the couch on occasion.

    1. I don’t think that a few success stories makes it okay to mislead countless others. I want cycling to be viewed for what it is, a great recreational activity that can greatly improve the quality of life. When people tell lies about it in order to sell things that don’t work, they deserve to be called out for it.

      Who else is going to do it? Not the cycling blogs/web sites funded by the people pumping out the lies.

      One reason people have unrealistic expectations is because no one points out the lies in all of the marketing b.s. It is incredibly discouraging to buy a bike or join Peloton thinking you’ll lose weight only to find out that cycling, of all its benefits, isn’t the best one by any means for that particular goal.

      Companies don’t deserve to be defended when they lie to to people in order to get them to buy their junk.

  2. 100% agree with you on this one that cycling actually makes me gain weight, mostly because it increases my hunger much more than calories burned. I actually think the trainer is even worse in that regard because im only on it 45 min or so but still eat like I did a 3hr ride outside.

    Regardless, what biking does (even on the trainer) is makes me more conscious of my food and makes me actually crave healthier choices. So even though the pure act of biking does not help me lose weight, it helps me eat better overall which thus helps me control weight, if that makes sense (i have actually lost weight this winter on the trainer…but due to diet not the bike!)

    Whats your major beef with all these bike companies? Yes, they are trying to sell a product and has marketing that stretches the truth. Same thing that has been done since the beginning of time. At least in this case there might be those few individuals that do benefit from it, even if most wont.

    If you want to direct your venom at anything, take a stab at the dietary supplement industry. It has virtually no regulation and no research to prove it does anything. People expect to pop a pill and get better, at least with the trainer companies people are aware they will have to at least get off the couch on occasion.

  3. While I agree that running is generally a better exercise for weight loss than is cycling, I disagree with some of your points. Cycling is not in any way an isometric muscle exercise. The primary difference between walking/running and cycling in terms of muscle stress is the lack of eccentric muscle contractions during cycling, but that does not make cycling isometric. Isometric exercises result in muscle tension with no change in muscle length – i.e. the muscle is trying to contract, but is held at a constant length.

    Regardless of the exercise mode, the body will tend to use its carbohydrate metabolisms initially, and the fat metabolism will only ramp up in output relatively slowly. Consuming carbohydrate during exercise _may_ suppress the utilization of the fat metabolism, but that depends on multiple factors including the trained state of the athlete, the overall state of the athlete’s carbohydrate stores, and the level of effort at the time of ingestion.

    1. Cycling is not isometric but it closely mimics isometric exercises particularly when you consider time under tension. The legs when cycling receive very, very little relief from tension while pedaling. Even if there is zero pull on the upstroke, if you are pedaling 60 rpm, there is only .5 second rest per revolution, or time not under tension. when pedaling at higher rpm such as 80-90, there is virtually none. This is one reason that cycling consumes such vast amounts of energy. Even though an hour of running is harder than an hour of cycling, cycling’s use of the biggest muscle groups in almost constant tension requires massive energy stores. This is one key reason that cyclists after exercise have such ravenous hunger compared to runners.

      Fat metabolism has everything to do with the adaptation of muscle fibers over very long periods of time. A beginning athlete who wants to lose weight and who has no conditioning will have very little ability to convert fat into usable energy; a beginning athlete who is also chugging sports drink and sports chews will have zero fat conversion. Moreover, a highly trained athlete who relies heavily on food during exercise will have little ability to convert fat because the muscle fibers have never transitioned.

      The exercise mode is very important because cycling has tremendous caloric demands that ramp up hunger in such a way that you will overcompensate post-workout and actually gain weight. Add in the well-documented effects of cycling as a minimal producer of IL-6 and it is a perfect storm.

      The point is that a trained athlete who understands the physiology behind weight loss and cycling, who is able to diet, and who may also have access to coaching, can certainly use cycling as a complement to weight loss. But the average person who is simply trying to lose weight and is following the hokum on the Internet will find find himself heavier for the reasons outlined in my post.

      1. Cycling cadences are not terribly different from running stride rates. The very short recovery phases are paired with very short contraction phases. The only thing about cycling that creates larger energy demands than running is the typical workout duration. A recreational runner is unlikely to routinely go out for 2+ hour runs, but such a duration is common for cyclists. Runners utilize the same large muscle groups – quads, glutes, gastrocnemeous – as cyclists. I’m skeptical of your claim that cyclists’ post-workout hunger is “ravenous” while runners are apparently immune from such feelings. I agree that the “sports nutrition” industry over-sells the need to “fuel” one’s efforts, and that restricting carbohydrate intake can over time train the body to operate at a higher fat to carb utilization ratio.

        1. Here’s an excellent post about the caloric difference between running and cycling: http://davesbikeblog.squarespace.com/blog/2007/9/24/running-vs-cycling-burning-calories.html

          Cycling burns more calories not simply because of duration, which of course matters, but because of wind resistance, which runners do not have except in exceptional circumstances.

          Because cycling is so calorie-intensive it makes you hungrier, resulting in the famous post-ride SCARF EVERYTHING NOW. As importantly, cycling produces less IL-6, which is crucial for appetite suppression.

          The sports nutrition industry oversells but so does the cycling industry in general, which is a shame because as one commenter noted, cycling doesn’t need the claim of weight-loss to make it worthwhile, it’s independently worth doing.

          Agree as well regarding carb intake. This is precisely the thing that beginning cyclists don’t do, and that actually most experienced riders don’t do, either. They can’t expect cycling to burn fat if they are shutting down the mechanism to convert fat to energy … well, they can expect it …

  4. paraphrasing a post I made elsewhere in reaction to your post:

    Riding a bicycle to lose weight is a fool’s errand–a sucker’s choice.

    Ride your bike to ride your bike. Ride your bike to move in the world. Fly horizontally. See over the horizon (it’s still there!) Travel under your own power. Turn yourself inside out. Do it again the next day. Cycling has no pain that doesn’t stop when you choose, unlike the rest of life.

    Experience a moonrise and a moonset in the saddle. Find the top of that next hill. Surf back and forth to work, leaving work at work and home at home.

    Put on your seven-league boots and go, even if it is just to generate your masterpiece, a headwind. Do it enough and you’ll weigh what you need to weigh. You’ll occupy your spot in the world. You may even know where that is at the end of the ride.

  5. I was out hiking in the snow this morning, and getting proper purchase in any step was work on every step, so I definitely concur that walking exercises many more variety of muscle fibers that get worked on the bike. I could feel almost every muscle that attaches to the ankle working hard to keep me upright. The snow was the hard crusty snow that lighter people can walk atop, but heavy lumps of brown stuff like me fall through on every step. I did the same loop that I have done hundreds of times, and I was wiped when I finished today.

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