I love it when I’ve got a target. I like steps to follow and predictable outcomes. Maybe I’m just a little bit simplistic but I can be very goal orientated and, provided there’s a path to follow and a guaranteed ending, I’m happy to follow it!
Wouldn’t it be great, for example, if you knew that to lose a stone in weight you had to burn off a certain number of calories? It would be even better if you knew exactly how much cycling to lose weight this equated to. You could then plan a certain number of hours of cycling per month and know that, by the end of the month, you would have lost a predictable amount of weight.
If only life were so simple!
Sadly, it isn’t so accommodating and there are far too many variable factors to take into account to actually make that sort of equation work (dammit!). However, let’s have a bit of fun with some numbers for a few minutes so that we do at least get an idea of how much pedal pumping needs to be done to shift our beer guts!
How to cycle off 1lb of fat
In 1958 a scientist called Max Wishnofsky (come on, is that his real name!?) concluded that 1 lb of body fat contains 3500 calories. This figure has been commonly quoted ever since and was based on the best research at the time. However, subsequent research has found that not all human fat tissue is 100% fat and there are a number of other discrepancies which mean that the figure is somewhere between 3436 and 3752.
That means that, in theory at least, if you burn off 3500 calories you will lose 1 lb of fat. Great so far! What does that mean in terms of cycling hours?
Well, according to Havard Health Publications if you weigh 185 1b you will burn 355 calories for every 30 minutes of cycling at between 12 and 13.9 mph. So, roughly speaking to burn off the 3500 calories in our 1lb of fat that’s about 5 hours of cycling at about 13 mph or about 65 miles of cycling.
That sounds awesome! If I wanted to lose a stone in weight then that’s 14 x 5 hours/65 miles of cycling so: (drum roll please…..)
To lose a stone in weight you need to cycle for 70 hours or 910 miles. That sort of seems reasonable and manageable. It also seems a fair trade off for the indulgence that it takes to gain an extra stone of weight as well. Like a sort of penance!
I’m going to make that a bit more real and use some figures from my ride yesterday – I rode for just over two hours at an average of just over 16mph and, according to Strava I burned 1076 calories. Assuming that each pound of fat contains 3500 calories as above I should have lost about 1/3 lb in weight just from one cycle ride!
But, I still weigh the same as I did last week. Why oh why does nothing go my way!? Why is everything so complicated and why does nothing ever do what it should when it should? My life would be so much simpler if everything did what it said on the tin!
Shifting fat in the real world
The calculations above have been used as a “rule of thumb” for decades by dieticians and fitness experts. In fact, it’s been estimated that it’s been quoted on 35,000 websites which is a strange coincidence bearing in mind that the figure is 3500 calories per lb of fat! Anyway, the rule of thumb states that to lose 1lb of weight, you need to consume 500 calories less per day for a week.
Sadly, this simply isn’t true and most people will lose weight at a much slower rate than this. You will need to cycle significantly more than in the figures above and that it will also take you longer to lose the weight.
Bad news! Why?
Well, predominantly because, as the body starts to burn off it’s fat reserves it does so at a decreasing rate the longer it goes on. So, the more weight you start to lose the slower you burn calories. Also, different people’s fat reserves have different proportions of fat in them, men and women lose fat at different rates as well as people of different ages. Similarly, depending upon the intensity of exercise the body won’t just burn off fat either. All of these variables basically blow the 500 calorie per day rule out of the water.
I came across what is supposed to be a much more scientific weight loss calculator here which takes into account a larger number of variable factors and is supposed to be significantly more scientifically and mathematically accurate at predicting weight loss.
According to the more scientific method, a 200lb 35-year-old man cutting 500 calories from his daily diet should lose 23lb in one year v losing the same amount of weight in four months according to the old method.
Oh dear! That’s a massive difference!
So how do you effectively and safely lose weight cycling then?
It’s a tough one for anyone and the first thing you have to do is be realistic. Bear in mind that it’s going to be a marathon rather than a sprint and it takes time. If you suddenly cut your calorific intake and increase the amount of cycling you do you will probably not feel great and will get terrible hunger pangs almost inevitably leading to unhealthy binge eating.
Talking from my own experience I lost about 100 lbs over the course of about 18 months/two years but it wasn’t easy. I used a combination of careful eating with regular exercise. The start was straight forward because I could see immediate progress but it got harder the longer I went on.
Take a long, hard look at your diet.
The first thing I did was to look at my food intake and do some calculations to find out how many calories I needed to be consuming just to maintain my weight. There are various online calculators that will do this (such as the one above) and they take into consideration your age, height and daily activity level. You can then work out how many calories per day you need to consume to lose a realistic amount per week.
Personally, I’m relatively sedentary in terms of my work life so I calculated my calorific intake based on that and also on a desire to lose 1 lb per week. It’s important to be realistic and not to try to go too fast and loose a lot per week as you simply won’t keep it up.
Then, you literally need to calorie count every single thing that goes into your mouth. I used the MyFitnessPal app on my phone as it’s easy to record and monitor your food on it and there’s a certain amount of satisfaction to be had from looking at the graphs and charts of your progress. You can also offset your cycle training against your calorific intake as well which is a relief!
I also spent the best part of a year feeling hungry. I think, to a certain extent, I do still almost constantly feel hungry but I have come to accept that as the norm. Previously, I had a number of issues with eating and the full and distended stomach feeling was my default position. I feel significantly more healthy and have much more energy and alertness now that I live with the edge of hunger most of the time!
Consider pre breakfast training rides
There’s a lot of advice around about riding in a fasted state before breakfast and how this kick starts your metabolism into burning fat really efficiently. I did this for a number of months and had mixed results. It’s well known that your body gets used to this way of burning fat and it becomes less efficient the more you do it. For me at least, I would come home painfully, painfully hungry and then be sorely tempted to at least eat unhealthily to fill the massive food void or to binge eat. It upset my whole eating pattern for the day and it would be extremely difficult to keep to a balanced and healthy diet afterwards.
I think it did probably speed up my weight loss but, in hindsight, for me at least, it did impinge on my enjoyment of my cycling which sort of defeats the object of the exercise. I experienced severe loss of energy on a number of occasions and I think being so hungry has a detrimental effect on my mood as well.
In hindsight, I think it’s a much better plan to eat a light healthy breakfast before riding and then to fuel regularly on the ride. In the longer term, I don’t think this has made any difference to my weight and I feel better and more energised when cycling, I don’t arrive home starving hungry and I am able to regulate my eating for the rest of the day afterwards much more efficiently.
Get the speed of your ride right
Riding at about 75% of your maximum heart rate, or when you are just slightly out of breath is the maximum efficiency for burning fat. If you can sustain this and do it regularly and combine it with some high-intensity interval training you will find that you will be burning those calories off really quickly! Try not to be tempted to toddle along too slowly, you need to be making some effort to burn the energy or you will have to cycle for hours and hours to lose any weight!
Similarly, riding frequently is better than going for one extremely long ride once a week. A mixture of high-intensity sessions with a longer endurance ride at the weekend will be most effective. If you can combine this with some cross training such as swimming or running and some strengthening activities like yoga or pilates then you have got the perfect combination!
Check and reward yourself
Once I started losing weight I weighed myself once a week at the same time each week and recorded my progress on the MyFitnessPal app. The temptation is to weight yourself more frequently but I felt I would start becoming a bit obsessive if I did that so I stuck to the once a week method. Again it’s really important that you record your progress and I found the graphs and charts on the app really helpful in this regard.
For me, as I shed the weight, I became increasingly motivated to keep going. My body changed shape and, rather than rewarding myself with food treats which is what I’d done for years, I bought clothes to fit my smaller size. Rewarding myself as I reached each weigh milestone was motivating for me, particularly in the beginning and towards the middle when things got tougher. To a certain extent my new way of eating is an ingrained habit now and takes much less effort but it takes a while to get to that level!
Have you lost a lot of weight through cycling? Do you have a personal story or tip that you would like to share? leave a comment below, I would love to hear from you!