E-Bikes and Exercise

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Despite my love of biking, walking and urban exploring, I am no stranger to the effects of an aging metabolism. Couple this with my ferocious hunger for good food and my love of wine, beer and bourbon, and you have the perfect recipe for the 20 extra pounds that have flashed onto the scale over the last few trips around the sun. In April of this year, the scale presented me with a number that made me realize I had to make a change. Since then, I have made a commitment to more exercise and I’ve tried to watch my intake. I’ve lost 7 pounds, and it’s been nice to see other indicators on my Apple Watch trend in a better direction as a result.

Part of these efforts includes biking, mostly for transportation but also in an effort to get daily exercise. I do this on skateboards, bikes and e-bikes. With regard to the latter, the commonly held misconception is that riding an e-bike is “cheating,” as if no energy is exerted. And while one can ride most e-bikes with little or no effort, the best way to ride is with a small-to-moderate amount of “pedal assist,” where the electric motor provides a boost of power to every turn of the pedals. Think of it like a stiff wind at your back.

Tonight after work I rode 20 miles on my Lectric XPedition cargo e-bike. Recently on my rides, I have been paying close attention to my heart rate, and comparing that to my average heart rate when I ride my non-motorized bikes. Since I usually ride my e-bike at a lower setting, I find that the difference in average heart rate is far less than one might think.

Comparing By Ride Duration

During this evening’s e-bike ride, for example, I averaged 104 beats per minute during a 94-minute period, burning an estimated 805 calories according to Omni, a web-based calculator that accounts for age, weight, exercise duration, gender and beats per minute. Full disclosure, Omni’s outcomes closely correlated with my Apple Watch data.

Recently, I made the same trip on my non-electric Trek FX1 hybrid cruiser bike, averaging 117 beats per minute. Calculating for the same duration of 94 minutes of cycling on this bike, I would burn approximately 990 calories, only 19% more calories than on the e-bike. This is the equivalent calorie count of the difference between a medium and large french fry at McDonalds. It’s slightly more than a can of Pepsi, and slightly less than a Kit Kat bar. It’s almost exactly 2-3 healthy bites (1/4) of a Whopper with Cheese from Burger King, and It’s less than a Betty Crocker Brownie and a serving of 1% milk.

Sure, riding a standard bicycle typically burns more calories than an e-bike given the same duration of exercise. But the difference is likely far less than most people realize per hour of riding.

Comparing By Distance

Where e-bikes and regular bikes differ the most is when you consider distance instead of time. For example, my workplace is approximately 3.6 miles away. When I ride my Trek bike with no motor, it takes me approximately 18 minutes and due to some hills, my heart rate averages around 120 BPM. On my e-bike, the trip takes about 15 minutes at 106 BPM. According to Omni, that’s a difference of 60 calories each way and 120 calories in a 7.2 mile round trip commute.

The Sweat Factor

An e-bike demands less energy, and if you couple that with the fact that it’s also faster, you get more physical efficiency, which leads to less calorie burn. But also, less work means that I arrive at my office less sweaty and gross. There’s nothing like biking to work on a 95 degree day and feeling good about the fact that you can scale your output in an effort to arrive at your destination without looking and smelling like a total mess.

Easier Riding Means More Riding

Looking bigger picture, the greater ease and comfort of an e-bike may encourage the owner to cycle longer and more often than they would on a regular bike. I have had e-bike riders (especially older riders) tell me they are far more active than before they purchased their e-bike. If an e-bike is the difference between making the transportation or recreational choice to bike or not bike, then the e-bike is a positive choice. Given the example of my aforementioned commute, if I ride my e-bike to work and home 5 days in a week, I burn 150 calories more than I would if I made the same round trip commute on a regular bike for 3 days. And each one of those 5 days would result in a far less sweaty experience. With regard to cardio health, think of an e-bike as the equivalent of a “less weight, more reps” workout.

This point is especially important to consider for riders with physical challenges, most notably older riders. I have had the pleasure of meeting dozens of e-bike riders in their 70s and 80s who say that they would likely not be riding at all if they didn’t have the pedal assist of an e-bike. For this demographic, the e-bike can be the difference between manageable activity and no activity.

It’s Never Just About Exercise

There are many reasons someone might get on a bike. Fitness, transportation, recreation… a bike ride can fulfill any one of these. But rarely is a bike ride a one-dimensional experience. A ride for fitness can lead to a world of exploration and connections. A simple commute can lead the rider to see their community differently and gain some exercise that they would not have gotten in a car. Because the U.S. has been built to accommodate the automobile above all else, bikes have long since been marketed as a way to get in shape rather than a way to get around or explore.

In Conclusion

An e-bike can fulfill a number of different personal needs and desires. And while the straight calorie burn per mile is less than a traditional bike at the same speed, this difference can be mitigated by the ease of riding farther and more often on an e-bike. Pedal assist is far from cheating, it is a way of bridging the gap between the bike and the car. As a fitness tool, it is a vehicle that can lead a rider of any ability to more frequent physical activity.

Let’s put to rest the idea that riding an e-bike is “cheating.” Instead, let’s embrace the e-bike as a transportation, recreation and fitness tool that provides riders of all abilities a scalable fitness experience.