Does cycling make you fatter?
January 29, 2020 § 14 Comments
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.
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.
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.
*The idea, most of the research, and some of the writing was done by Kristie Fox.