Is Bike Commuting Enough Exercise?

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We all know physical activity is one of the key requirements for staying healthy. But the daily responsibilities of work and family can make it difficult to find time for a regular workout.

If you’re a good multitasker (and who isn’t these days?) you can find ways to incorporate a workout into your already busy schedule. One effective way is to commute to work by bicycle.

Commuters ride to work in San Jose, Calif.
Commuters ride to work in San Jose, Calif. (© Richard Masoner | Creative Commons)

But is bike commuting enough exercise?

For many people, the answer is yes—but there are factors and variables you should consider in relation to your own situation to determine whether or not bike commuting will be enough exercise for you.

How much exercise should I be getting?

According to Health.gov, the average adult should engage in about 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week to maintain a healthy body. If you are trying to lose weight, you should consider adding more exercise to your schedule.

Distance of your commute

Now that you have an idea of how much exercise you need during the week, you can determine whether your commute will provide enough activity, or if you will have to supplement the workout.

More than half of work commuters in the U.S. live within 10 miles of their workplace, according to Bicycling.com. Most riders could make this 10-mile trip within 60 minutes. Of course, the amount of time you spend on this commute would depend on the type of terrain, traffic, stop signs and lights, your cycling ability, and weather conditions.

A pair of bicycle wheels slicing through a deep puddle
Cycling in the rain is going to add some time to your commute.

To determine whether commuting by bike between home and work will give you enough physical activity, you first need to know the distance you’ll be traveling. If you have worked and lived in the area for a while, you can probably already estimate the distance.

If not, consider using the “directions” feature on Google Maps or another mapping website to help you calculate the distance. You could also take note of your odometer readings before and after your next drive to work.

Screenshot of Google Maps showing a 4.6 km bike commute
At the bottom, Google Maps gives you the exact distance of your planned commute.

Often, a bike route is shorter than the route you would normally take by car because you can access trails and shortcuts that aren’t available to motor vehicles.

Once you know the distance you’ll be traveling, consider how fast you can ride. Terrain, traffic and your own riding ability will all have an impact on this. A smartwatch or a cycling app such as Strava can tell you your average speed during any ride.

Then, do a little math. Let’s say that your 10-minute drive takes you a half an hour to complete on your bike. If you do this round trip, that would give you an hour of aerobic exercise every day you work. If your average work week is five days, you will have completed five hours of exercise per week—double the recommended minimum amount of physical activity.

The average 155-pound person burns just under 300 calories in half an hour of cycling. So in this scenario, you would be getting more than enough aerobic activity for the average adult and would burn roughly 600 calories per day.

Target heart rate for bike commuting

Knowing and reaching your target heart rate is another factor in determining whether or not your bike commuting fitness routine is doing enough for you. According to The University of Rochester Medical Center, an easy way to determine your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. This will give you the average maximum number of times that your heart should beat per minute while exercising.

AgeMaximum heart rateTarget heart rate range
20200 bpm100-170 bpm
30190 bpm95-162 bpm
40180 bpm90-153 bpm
50170 bpm85-145 bpm
60160 bpm80-136 bpm

Your target heart rate is between 50 and 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate. Aim for the high end of that range if you’re really working on your fitness, and the low end if you’re just trying to maintain good health.

How to make bike commuting more challenging

If your bike commute seems too short or too easy to provide enough exercise, there are few things you can do to give yourself a more rigorous workout.

Switch to airless foam tires

Airless foam tires provide more resistance on the road than conventional commuter tires. They’ll make you work a bit harder on your ride. Another benefit of this type of tire is that you don’t have to worry about getting a flat!

Expand your route

If time allows, consider adding mileage to your commute by going the scenic route. Bike through a park, along a trail or maybe explore a different route once a week to increase your mileage and keep things interesting.

A cyclist riding among vineyards
Changing up your route can add to the challenge and keep things fresh.

Cyclocross

If your equipment and abilities allow, cyclocross across gravel, grass and other types of terrain. This “off-road” approach to cycling to work not only adds to your workout but also increases the excitement of the ride. Just make sure you are following local laws.

How to bike commuting less challenging

If you already feel like your commute is too challenging or you bike-commuting fitness just seems too daunting to even try, consider these tips for an easier workout.

Bike one way to work

Consider biking only one way to work. For instance, you might be able ride your bike to work in the morning, leave your bike in a secure place, and then take the train or bus home in the evening. The next day, do the opposite and retrieve your bike for the ride home.

A bicycle loaded onto the bike rack at the front of a transit bus
Many transit systems will allow you to mount your bike on the front of a bus or bring it on the train if you’re only riding one way. (© Joshua Putnam | Creative Commons)

Lighten the load

Biking with a heavy backpack, messenger bag, or other weight can really intensify the workout. Consider leaving your personal items in your desk or locker at work. If possible, leave books and files at the office. Consider stocking up on easy-to-prepare food and snacks to leave at your place of work. Then you can ride with only your water bottle and mobile phone weighing you down.

Make yourself comfortable

Choose gear and equipment that are comfortable for you to wear. Invest in clothing that is appropriate for both the workplace and your bike ride. If you aren’t equipped to carry your suit on your bike, be prepared to change clothes when you get to work.

Check the weather and be prepared with any gear you might need to make your commute pleasant.

Recommendations and cautions

Your health and safety are the most important things to consider when deciding whether to commute by bike. Exercise recommendations vary depending on a person’s physical health, ability and age, so it is important to consult with your physician about your specific needs and abilities.

It’s also vital to have proper gear for your ride. A good helmet is a must. If you are going to be riding in the dark, make sure your bike is equipped with reflective gear and lights.

Try to give yourself some basic knowledge on bike repair and check your tire pressure regularly to ensure yourself a safe and happy ride.

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