Bicycling as exercise…or not?

I have been cycling almost daily for so long – over five years now! – that I do not think much about the physical aspect.  When I first started bike commuting, I could feel it in my legs for several months.  By now the act is so routine, I sometimes forget that bicycling is exercise.


Oma and I setting off to work last week

I was reminded of this fact when I returned to bike commuting after almost a month’s break, due to my travels and other factors.  After two days back in Chicago riding Oma in the wind, my legs muscles were sore.  Really, riding a bike as heavy as Oma is more like weight training than cardio.  :-)

Years ago, I read a Dutch woman comment that because she’s been cycling her whole life, her leg muscles are too used to the motions and she has to do separate exercises to keep her legs toned.  I refuse to believe that – I hate squats!

I wonder how others experience the physical aspects of bicycling and how that has changed (or not) over time.  Anyone care to share?

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24 thoughts on “Bicycling as exercise…or not?

  1. Uli Bredulli says:

    Ha, I also consider my riding commuter bike strength training… and the road bike cardio.
    I don’t just commute, though, so I guess I don’t forget that aspect of it. But I usually attend group rides, so the social aspect is much bigger than the work out, even if it’s a hundred miles at a time.

    • 2by2cyclist says:

      Intensity is everything! But, what is one’s goal? Luckily, we can vary our intensity at will! A lot can be said for slowing down, enjoying the scenery and keeping the heart in the “green zone”. Burning fat and still getting to the store, job, or classroom. Everyday riding is the “bomb”!

  2. Comfortable speed, upright dutch bike on flat roads is certainly no more exercise than walking. But walking is still exercise.

  3. LGRAB says:

    I agree, biking for me is strength training + a teeny bit of cardio!

  4. David P. says:

    I’ve always been aware of it as exercise and have noticed the benefits over the many years (it’s my primary form of exercise), but it’s never been why I do it, save for when I want to do something like go for a fast 40-60 mile ride on the weekend; even then, it’s about the fun. I didn’t know that living and riding in flatland for so many years could make me so good at hills until I rode in mountains for the first time in years and killed them compared to when I was in my 20s. On an everyday basis, I seem to have a lot of energy and riding everywhere is a good way to make sure it has an outlet!

  5. Beverley Strain says:

    I find that switching up the bike I use can increase (or decrease) the amount of calories I burn, or the muscles I use. I have a steel frame bike that is pretty darn heavy, so I feel that works my leg muscles. If I want more Cardio, I switch to my aluminum frame bike because I can go fast. If I need somewhere in between I use my mountain bike. There are ways to get different workouts…just takes planning, and bicycle collecting!! :)

  6. anniebikes says:

    I crave exercise and the freedom to do it under my own power. It’s more than a physical release: it adds mental clarity to my life, something that’s become increasingly apparent as I age. What was once transportation as a teenager has morphed into a necessary activity. I suspect I’ll pedal through retirement.

    Nothing like time off the bike to make you realize just how good a shape your legs were in! But, walking is also a great form of exercise, and weight bearing exercise too. That’s something that cycling doesn’t provide. On days when I’m burnt out on pedaling, I walk around town to do errands.

  7. Adam Herstein says:

    My legs are definitely sore by the end of the work week.

  8. Bettina @ Books, Bikes, and Fo says:

    I love your outfit in this picture, you look so professional and put together!
    Personally, I don’t really notice that my legs get sore from my (admittedly quite short) bike commute. However, I have noticed that since I’ve taken up regular biking, my legs have become more toned. Super bonus! :D

  9. Michael Jenkins says:

    Sadly, biking is not sufficient mostly because one rarely develops the musculature and bone density that predicts vitality well into and past middle age. High intensity resistance training is a possible adjunct to biking that yields good results with a minimal time investment. Couldn’t agree more about squats, but 90 seconds once a week is tolerable for me.

    That said, this is a great time of year to be out riding. Out here in the burbs the leaves are still improving.

  10. G.E. says:

    I am currently recovering from a not-so-wonderful round with the flu. I went on a 30 mile ride this morning and was convinced I was going to die in the process (3 weeks ago, this would’ve been an “easy” ride for me). I felt it somewhat in my legs, but mostly it was my lungs that still haven’t recovered. I opted to ride a heavier steel bike thinking it was more important to be comfortable, but in the end, I think a lighter weight option might have been a better choice while getting through this time of feeling better, but still not completely well.

    I also notice in the spring that my legs have a transition time. Even though I ride through all the seasons, I find that as the weather gets colder my rides tend to be shorter so when warmer weather arrives, I need time to strengthen and get that endurance back to where I want it to be.

  11. spandex_is_comfortable! says:

    I burn between 600-800 calories a day cycling in a utilitarian manner on my carbon fiber “transportation bikes”. Anyone who believes that utilitarian cycling cannot be high impact cardiovascular exercise is in denial.

    • Dottie says:

      That’s great! As far as people being in denial that it can be a high impact cardiovascular exercise, I seem to encounter the opposite: people who think bike commuting must be a high impact cardiovascular exercise and therefore are not interested. Really, so much depends on individual factors such as the distance, terrain, and type of bike.

  12. steve_a_dfw says:

    Of course cycling is exercise. How else would you get to the gym?

  13. Elizabeth says:

    I think the bigger issue is not that bikes are/n’t exercise – but that when you ride every day, your body gets used to the level of activity (and hunger), and so it takes more effort to make or notice changes. Once you’re used to it, daily biking = good for maintenance, not for getting fit!

    • Dottie says:

      That’s a good way to explain the effect of long-term daily cycling. I hope that maintenance includes maintenance of toned legs. I’m still worried about what that Dutch woman said. ;)

  14. Accordion says:

    Oh the pain – everything hurts! I even have to retrain my “sit muscles”.

    I’ve just had 5 weeks off the bike due to a dooring accident and a chesty cold. Every muscle group hurts, I am puffed, red in the face, and, well, scared.

    Not so much stylish as stuffed! I need another week before things return to usual.

  15. stepthrough says:

    My yoga instructor was saying something about how your body uses different muscles – basically it very efficiently uses the big muscles for fast movement like pedaling, versus engaging other, smaller muscles for slow movement like squats.

  16. Alex says:

    I’m a grad student, and while I’ve tried to maintain my pre-student running schedule, truth is that the 20 minutes I spend on a bike each day commuting is often the only exercise I get.

  17. aminor says:

    How about we focus on being healthy instead of mere appearance? Odds are if you’re a cyclist your legs looks pretty good. Odds are if you commute by bike every day that you’re healthy too. Those are two great things. Maybe your legs could look like they were chiseled pieces of iron, but who cares? Life isn’t a body building competition. Have fun, be healthy. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

    I find the squat story totally bogus too. Why would a muscle disappear if it’s getting used every day for decades? That would just make the every day task more difficult. It doesn’t make much sense really. The task became easy through developing muscles after all. My guess is the person either rode less than before, got a lighter bike or an easier commute: Occam’s razor and all.

  18. David says:

    Hi Dottie,
    Being a dutch man i can assure you that I have never ever met a dutch woman, or man for that matter, who had to do extra excercises to keep her legs toned because she cycled too much. If this womans reasoning was right, half of the dutch population would have had atrophied leg muscles because they cycled too much.

    However because it is just a means of transportation over here, many people who cycle a lot to work or school also do some kind of sports.

    It is my personal experience that daily cycling contributes a lot to my physical and mental well being. I’m afraid that now and than sore legs are part of the game. But then again, nothing beats the feeling of the wind in your hair and sun on your face and the sound of your tires on the road.

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