Belly fat can be a concern for many people and is associated with a number of pathological risks.
Researchers Ritchie and Connell linked abdominal obesity to insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease. Men are more prone than women to accumulate fat in this area, according to a 2001 study by professor Ellen Blaak.
Although targeting belly fat through exercise is not thought to be possible, losing fat everywhere will reduce stomach fat stores.
Consuming fewer calories than you expend is the way to do this. By calculating how many calories cycling burns, you can create a negative energy balance by tailoring your eating.
But before trying to lose weight through cycling, bear in mind that a calorie deficit impairs recovery. So, don’t cut your food intake while training hard.
You should always seek expert advice before trying to lose a lot of weight too.
Does riding a bike burn fat?
Fat is the body’s preferred fuel source when you ride in your lower-intensity training zones, such as zone two in a seven-zone model.
Just remember that burning fat by cycling isn’t the same as losing fat from your body, as Asker Jeukendrup, Team Jumbo-Visma’s nutritionist, explains:
“You can have high rates of fat burning and not lose any weight at all, or even gain weight.
“Weight loss is all to do with energy balance. It’s basically energy in and energy out, and if you burn more then you’ve taken in, you will lose weight. There is no way around that.”
Calculating exactly what is energy in and energy out is not easy, but when short of calories, the body uses stored fat for energy and to top up depleted muscle glycogen stores. Over time, this process reduces body fat.
Does cycling reduce belly fat?
Whether you can target weight loss remains hotly disputed, but it’s arguably irrelevant.
Scientists have examined what happens when participants lose weight while performing resistance and endurance training with a certain muscle group. A 2013 study found localised muscle resistance training led to the whole body becoming leaner, not specifically the area of the body trained.
However, a more recent study concluded fat loss can be localised.
Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance and co-founder of 80/20 endurance sport coaching, says “anatomically specific weight loss” is possible, but not from the belly.
“People doing sit-ups to lose belly fat was scoffed at but more recent research has shown that there is site specificity,” he says.
“Cyclists tend to have leaner legs than upper body, so anytime you do whole-body aerobic exercise you will lose fat everywhere, but it is more concentrated in the areas where the muscle is active.
For example, if you want to lose fat on your arms, Fitzgerald recommends swimming, which will activate your arm muscles.
He adds that it’s easy to “get stuck in the weeds” of fat loss and forget the basics.
“The average cyclist doesn’t need to worry too much: the basic things of improving diet quality, not eating mindlessly, training smart and progressively are going to do a lot more than doing ice baths to shed brown fat or what have you,” he says.
How can I burn fat by cycling?
The short answer is by riding slower.
As intensity increases, the proportion of fat to carbohydrate your body resorts to in order to fuel cycling decreases. This is because fat reserves are nearly unlimited even in the leanest athletes. Your body tries to preserve its finite carbohydrate stores for when energy is needed quickly.
The timing of the transition from fat to carbohydrate varies from person to person. A 2005 study into fat oxidation concluded that women are better at oxidising fat than men, meaning they have to switch later to easily extinguished carbohydrates.
You can raise your maximal fat oxidation or Fatmax (the hardest effort you can sustain while using fat for fuel) by doing lots of zone 2 riding.
Here are a few pointers on how to use cycling to shed fat and retain muscle.
Tips to lose fat while cycling
Try interval training
Fitzgerald says short, sharp bouts of intervals – such as 10x 30 seconds at full gas with several minutes’ recovery – repeated up to three or four times a week is the most efficient way to lose fat fast.
Be sure to stay aware of traffic if you’re doing flat-out efforts on the road and consider indoor cycling for these sessions.
You expend more calories per minute during interval training sessions and after, owing to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). A 2005 study found EPOC equated to 6 to 15 per cent of an intense workout’s net total energy expenditure.
While you can’t burn as many calories in a high intensity interval training session as during a long ride, a high training load is not optimal for fat loss, according to Fitzgerald.
He believes vigorous workouts suppress appetite better than steady rides. This makes you less likely to overcompensate by refuelling with junk food.
On the other hand, Jeukendrup says you should prioritise total calorie burn for weight loss. In his view, if you’re restricting carbohydrate intake, long, low-intensity riding is the best way to achieve a negative energy balance.
Both methods work and, whichever you choose, you’ll still need to expend more energy than you take in.
It’s difficult to say if exercise or diet is more important for fat loss. But according to Fitzgerald, you have more leverage with your diet because you can improve its quality.
Ideally, your diet complements your exercise. For instance, you eat less carbohydrate and more protein to contribute to a negative energy balance while staying full.
Fitzgerald recommends eschewing processed foods in favour of their more satiating and less calories-dense unprocessed equivalents. For example, swapping white rice for brown rice.
In addition, he advises avoiding mindless eating (continuing eating once full) and low-quality, high-calorie foods such as crisps. This is a fairly easy and quick way to move from an energy surplus to an energy deficit.
Meanwhile, Alan Murchison, author of The Performance Chef books and nutritionist with Specialized Factory Racing, advocates incrementally cutting portion sizes across the board, but not eliminating any particular food.
He underlines that each macronutrient – protein, carbohydrate and fat – is necessary for a balanced diet, so exclusionary diets such as keto are a bad idea.
Murchison says even the professional athletes he works with eat chocolate and sweets from time to time, but do so in a balanced way.
A manageable deficit of 500 calories a day could see you drop a kilo a week, according to Murchison. A more negative energy balance will make you so hungry you’re likely to then overeat.
Echoing Murchison, Jeukendrup says: “If you go more than that, you have a high risk of just not recovering, becoming overtrained and having all sorts of negative effects.”
How long you can sustain the calorie-reduced diet is more important than the technical details, he adds. Your new eating habits need to last months, not days.
Jeukendrup recommends examining what you’re eating to identify what you can easily cut out. He does this dietary analysis with athletes on an individual basis because some people can’t do without certain foods.
He says sometimes the analysis is unnecessary because the athlete’s source of excess calories is obvious, for example after-dinner snacking.
But Jeukendrup warns that everyday riders need to be more cautious about calorie reduction than professionals. It’s easier to reduce a pro’s 5,000-calorie daily intake with no ill effect, he says. But cutting 500 calories from a 2,500-calorie diet could adversely affect its nutritional quality.
While losing fat is often a good thing, losing muscle is not. But a careful approach to weight loss can ensure your power-to-weight ratio improves.
To maintain power while getting lighter, Fitzgerald advocates strength training for cyclists who want to lose fat.
A 2017 meta analysis of weight loss studies concluded that doing strengthening exercises in a calorie deficit sheds fat while preserving muscle.
In a 2011 study, participants who lost weight while strength training lost less muscle than a control group who did not strength train. What’s more, aerobic and resistance training prevent fat regain following weight loss, according to a 2009 study.
Fitzgerald maintains strength training will increase muscle mass and drive up your metabolism.
However, Jeukendrup says bulking up in a negative energy balance is very hard to do. In fact, bodybuilders grow muscle in an energy surplus before eating drastically less for a short time to trim fat.
He cites evidence that a calorie deficit impairs your strength gains from lifting weights. Therefore, if you combine losing weight with resistance training, your energy deficit shouldn’t exceed 500 calories, according to Jeukendrup.
He stresses the importance of doing weight training when well-fuelled, for example not when glycogen-depleted after a sweetspot training session.
Indeed, Murchison and Jeukendrup agree you should fuel properly before, after and during all training sessions. Calories should then be cut at different times, such as your evening meal or after a morning workout.
Go slow, be patient
Jeukendrup says initial weight loss can be rapid. You can lose up to 2kg in the first week of weight loss because your body’s water and glycogen stores diminish. Then you start to lose fat and this happens far slower.
“It depends a little bit, but you’re probably looking at 300-400g per week,” he says.
This underscores the nutritionist’s previous point that you need to be able to maintain your dietary modifications long-term to see substantial fat loss.
There’s also no miracle fat-loss solution. The fat-burning properties of supplements and caffeine are often touted, but they deliver minimal weight-loss benefits, according to Jeukendrup.
Jeukendrup says caffeine only lifts fat burning by a fraction of a gram a minute. Eating a little less or exercising more will help much more, he explains.
“People are always looking for the easy way to achieve the goal. Taking a tablet is easier than getting out on the bike, but I don’t think there are any shortcuts,” he says.
The benefits of coffee for cycling are most noticeable in hour-long time trials, according to Jeukendrup, where the stimulant masks feelings of fatigue.
One of the many benefits of getting a good night’s sleep for cycling is weight control.
A meta-analysis of short sleep duration and obesity concluded that studies show “a consistent increased risk of obesity amongst short sleepers in children and adults”.
Sleeping more improves body composition, according to a 2011 study. Fat formed a higher percentage of total weight loss in participants who slept 8.5 hours rather than 5.5 hours a night.
Writing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Jean-Phillipe Chaput PhD and Angelo Tremblay PhD, noted that sleeping less correlates with higher levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin. Because higher ghrelin concentrations promote fat retention and hunger makes calorie restriction harder, the scientists argued that “insufficient sleep could compromise the efficacy of common dietary interventions.”
Not everyone’s body reacts to stress by increasing levels of cortisol. But people who do are more likely to overeat, particularly sweet foods, according to a 2001 study.
Happily, regular aerobic exercise such as cycling has been shown to be a great way of combating stress, decreasing anxiety, helping to reduce tension and boost your mood. The same is true for spending time outdoors, which most cycling facilitates.