The urban bike magazine

Weight loss through cycling: Can your daily commute keep you in shape?

Diet and exercise fads come and go with few of them creating long lasting benefits. The only way to lose weight and keep it off is by making sustainable lifestyle changes. Professor Gary Foster from the University of Pennsylvania found that sixty-five percent of dieters regain the weight lost within three years.

Ryan Waddington
Ryan Waddington is a Professional Triathlete and avid traveller. He moved to Adelaide for the glorious summers and incredible cycling. He is also a qualified Economist and Teacher.
Photo: CC0

I have long been an advocate of cycling for weight loss. My reasoning is related to the practicality of cycling when compared to other fitness options. It is also worth looking at the latest trends and science in food as exercise only contributes to weight loss while diet plays the central role. As beneficial as it is, our daily commute only makes up a relatively small portion of the day. What we eat and how that affects our metabolism is an ongoing process.

Practicalities and benefits of cycling

In my experience, cycling is the best form of exercise when it comes to burning energy. Cycling does not burn more energy per unit of time than other activities, but it makes it possible to exercise for longer periods than sports that involve impact. This is due to the comparatively gentle nature of cycling which causes far less muscle soreness. Cycling also fits neatly into our busy everyday lives. Commuting to and from work in a vehicle is dead time which cycling can replace. Many people in major cities such as London are finding cycling the quickest door to door method of commuting.

The science behind weight loss through exercise

Assuming your commute is a fourteen kilometre round trip then you can expect to use approximately 720 kilocalories (kcal) of energy. The average daily intake that an adult requires is between 1800 and 2500 kcal. This certainly shows the potential to lose weight by regularly commuting. The caveat when trying to lose weight through exercise is that you cannot eat much more. Exercise leads to hunger and research has shown that compensatory eating limits the effectiveness of an exercise based weight loss program. To give greater meaning to the numbers, 720 kcal correlates to a sandwich, an apple and two slices of pizza.

Commuting to and from work has another benefit, albeit harder to quantify. Exercise temporarily increases the bodies basal metabolic rate (BMR). The BMR is essentially the amount of energy the body needs to sustain life while at rest. BMR rises during exercise and it takes time for the body to return to its normal state as it works hard to settle body temperature and heart rate. This is known as exercise after-burn.

By exercising twice a day courtesy of commuting you get the benefits of this after-burn effect twice. There is mixed evidence in the literature when it comes to weight loss through the temporary increase of the BMR alone. Thankfully, there is no evidence of it being counterproductive. The inconclusive evidence of increasing BMR and the potential ineffectiveness of exercise programs for weight loss begs the question, why exercise? Exercise results in increased lean body mass, fat burning, muscle and ligament strengthening as well as reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer. All things being equal, if exercise has not resulted in weight loss, then it may be a matter of diet.

Weight-loss and diet

To lose weight you need to burn more kcal than you consume. We’ve heard it before. Unfortunately, the human body is far more complex than a balancing scale. If weight loss were as simple as energy in versus energy out then we would all have no problem losing weight. It may be a challenge to sustain, but the initial act of losing weight should be easy. Yet, it can still feel impossible to lose the smallest amount of weight despite implementing a new exercise regime and restricting our food consumption.

Fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are the main three nutrients in food. For many people the word fat has negative connotations and we tend to avoid foods containing them. Instead, we choose carbohydrates which are sugars. Over the past fifty years fats have been vilified by institutions and governments for obesity epidemics and health problems around the world. The literature published in recent times tells a different story. One in which sugar and the exponential increase in sugar consumption is the culprit.

The science behind sugar and fat

Sugar bad for weight loss

Photo: HealthGauge via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Carbohydrates can be classified into three categories: sugar, starch, and fibre. All of these are sugars but the latter two contain useful vitamins and minerals. Due to their complex nature the body takes time to break them down for use as energy. On the other hand, there are a variety of simple sugars which provide instant energy without nutrients. Eating carbohydrates in their simpler forms means that it takes a larger quantity of food to feel full.

Fructose is one of the most concerning forms of simple sugars. It does not trigger nn appetite suppression response at all and one third of fructose consumed is stored as fat. Ironically it is simple sugars which make you fat, not fat. With the exception of trans fats, fats play a significant role in a healthy diet. Overeating fatty foods is unhealthy although it is difficult to do this as fats trigger an appetite suppression response.

Popular diets

If sugars are so bad then why not cut out carbohydrates? The Ketogenic diet does just this. This diet has received much attention in recent years. I can attest to a number of friends who have adopted it with success. I am sold on the science behind this diet although it isn’t for me. If you love your bread and pasta as much as I do, then it may not excite you either.

Alternatively, there are calorie restriction diets. Many advocate energy consumption under half of our recommended intake. Famous celebrities have made some extreme examples, such as the Lemon Detox Diet which trades food for lemon flavoured water. Unless you are comfortable contesting the hunger games on a daily basis then these diets are patently ridiculous.

Practical advice

If exchanging your daily dose of sugar for fats is a scary prospect and calorie restriction hasn’t worked for you, then I can still offer one piece of advice. When you pick up a food product ask these questions. Did this product exist a century ago and how far removed is it from its original form? Many foods found on supermarket shelves are unnatural and have been created to profit from our addiction to sugar. There is substantial evidence to show that corporations have deliberately funded studies in order to exonerate sugar as a cause of health problems.

Ask yourself those two questions next time you pick something up from the aisle, familiarise yourself with the latest diets, and keep pedalling to work. It isn’t one single factor that governs our health. It is the choices we make on daily basis and how well we integrate those into our routines. Some people will need to address their entire lifestyle to create changes. For others, it may be as simple as joining the standing workplace revolution. We all lead very different lifestyles, and may need to experiment in order to find what works best for us. Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple solution.

Featured photo: Pixabay CC0

Ryan Waddington
Ryan Waddington is a Professional Triathlete and avid traveller. He moved to Adelaide for the glorious summers and incredible cycling. He is also a qualified Economist and Teacher.
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