It’s easy to build up unwanted fat on the waistline, but getting on a bike can help you shift those extra pounds and along the way lose belly fat, helping you get fitter and leaner.
Here are a few tips if you want to use cycling for weight loss.
It’s important to clarify that ‘spot reduction’ – that is the reduction of fat in specific areas of the body through particular exercises – has been scientifically proven to be a myth. Fat is lost from the entire body as a result of diet and regular exercise.
Tips to lose fat while cycling
Keep a steady pace
Does cycling burn fat? Yes. Although your stomach muscles aren’t working as hard as your quads or glutes when you’re riding, but cycling’s aerobic nature means you are burning fat.
Work at a moderately intensive pace, so that conversation is possible, but not easy – less than than 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate – three times a week for about two hours.
This kind of lower-intensity training burns a greater percentage of fat than high intensities, but bear in mind that overall calorie burning would be less than higher-intensity sessions for the same duration, so don’t go overboard with the post-ride snacks.
Try interval training
To really push the calorie burn, add in some interval training. At the end of your long ride, or if you only have a short amount of time to train, do six sets of all-out efforts, each lasting two minutes, with 30 seconds of rest in between. As you improve you can keep going for longer.
Be sure to stay aware of traffic if you’re doing flat-out efforts on the road – consider making the most of your turbo/smart trainer for these sessions.
The benefits are that you’ll burn loads of calories in a short amount of time doing intervals and your metabolism will be up for the next 12 hours, meaning you burn extra calories over the course of the day. You’ll soon be seeing the weight loss!
Off the bike exercise
Your natural instinct may be to concentrate on stomach crunches and sit-ups to remove belly fat. In reality, although these will help to build muscle and improve core strength, they won’t remove fat – aerobic exercise is still the most efficient way to do that.
However, there are many benefits to cross-training, whatever type you choose to do. It can improve your on-bike performance meaning you’re more likely to be able to ride further and for longer. And this in turn will mean you’ll be able to burn more calories.
Try aerobic muscle workouts such as the ‘lying down bicycle’ exercise. Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and raise yourself up so that your shoulders and legs are off the ground at a 90-degree angle with your knees bent.
Touch your right knee to your left elbow while extending your left leg, followed by left knee to right elbow extending your right leg. Repeat this, at a controlled speed, in sets of 20 with 30 seconds rest.
Planks are also excellent for toning the core muscles and increasing strength.
Circuits and classes such as Zumba and Body Combat are aerobic, so will give you a high intensity session where you’ll burn some serious calories, and can be fun too, as well as give you a full body workout.
Yoga and pilates may not be high intensity, but they are highly recommended for cyclists because they help stretch out muscles that can become tight after the repetitive motion of pedalling and being positioned on a bike for hours at a time. This helps avoid injury, which again means fewer impediments to staying on your bike.
Weight and strength training can also help. Body weight exercises such as squats and planks can help improve your core strength, your shoulder strength and your leg strength.
There’s also evidence to suggest that weight training helps improve muscle efficiency on longer rides. A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport showed that female duathletes who added weight training to their regime saw an increase in muscle efficiency over those who did not do weight training after two hours of cycling.
In theory, losing fat is simple: you need to burn more calories than you consume. The bigger the calorie deficit, the greater the fat loss.
Be careful to fuel your exercise with slow burning carbohydrates (wholegrain pastas and breads) and lean proteins (turkey) and avoid eating much of anything high in saturated fat, such as cheese, butter and sugary sweets.
You should also be wary of food labelled ‘low fat’. Some so-called low fat foods have very high levels of sugar, which contains a lot of calories that the body converts into fat during digestion, so check the labels carefully. You may be better off going for a moderate, occasional portion of the real deal rather than the ‘low-fat’ option.
Don’t be tempted to drastically reduce your calorie intake: you still need to make sure you’re getting enough food to function healthily.
If you’re not fuelling yourself adequately in your training you won’t be able to get the most from your key sessions – lowering performance – and your body could start dropping muscle mass rather than fat.
Your body may also go into starvation mode, slowing the metabolism to conserve calories, which is exactly what you don’t want.
The general advice is to aim for a weight loss of between 0.5lb to 2lb, or 0.2kg to 1kg a week. There are plenty of online tools to help you work out the calorie deficit you need to aim for to achieve this. The best way is to make healthy food choices and up your levels of physical activity.
It’s also worth avoiding food and drink that can cause bloating. While this isn’t actually belly fat – it’s caused by water retention in the tissues (oedema) around your stomach and elsewhere on your body – it can cause that tum to look a little on the large side.
You might already be aware of certain foods that have this effect on you, but salty foods and alcohol certainly have this effect so are best avoided or limited – and that’s not even to mention the hidden calories in alcoholic drinks!
Stress and its associated low mood can affect weight; some people stop eating properly and lose weight, others turn to comfort eating and gain weight. Neither is ideal or healthy. Stress can also affect sleep levels. So controlling or managing your stress levels can have a beneficial effect on weight control.
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.
What’s more, getting outside into nature has also been shown to decrease stress levels according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and handily cycling is a predominantly outdoor form of exercise.
Post-cycling rest and recuperation
Sleep deprived? If you’re trying to shift some weight then getting enough sleep can be an important part of the equation. A study by the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, US, demonstrated that people who slept between six and eight hours a night were more likely to be successful in their weightless goals.
A good night’s sleep is also important for recovery post-exercise and injury prevention.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that eating later in the evening, or eating around the clock, may mean the body holds onto more calories, according to research published in the journal Cell Metabolism.
What better way to tire yourself out so you’re more likely to get a good night’s rest than by cycling regularly? The benefits here are twofold.
So what are you waiting for? Grab your bike, get out and beat that belly fat.
More tips to help you boost your fitness
Whether you’re looking for healthy, tasty recipes, guidance on what kind of food you need to fuel your riding, or how to boost your fitness, speed or strength, BikeRadar has plenty of resources to help you along the way.
- 8 tips for getting fitter on your commute
- 6 ways for cyclists to burn fat fast
- Cycling nutrition: are you eating enough?
- 30-minute meals to satisfy your post-ride hunger
- Quick exercises to build you strength for cycling
Note: This article has been extensively updated since it was first published, so some comments below may be out of date.