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Can you really get fit by riding an electric bike regularly?
The reason I’m here today, writing this article is because I used an electric bike to get fit and lose weight. For me, discovering the ebike was life changing, and helped me make the transformation from being overweight and unfit to the much healthier and more active person I am today.
There are an increasing number of people who are turning to electric bikes as a primary way to increase fitness. In fact using an electric bike to get fit has become so popular, there have been extensive scientific studies on the subject of fitness and ebikes.
One thing you do need to remember though is, if you’re getting back into cycling, whether using an e-bike or not, it is always wise to consult your doctor. Particularly if you have an existing health condition.
In this article, I will be exploring the health benefits of riding a pedalec, this means the electric assist can only be activated by pedalling (and not throttle).
In order to get fitter you will need to be pedalling, as the very act of pedalling will help to increase your cardiovascular fitness. What an ebike motor does is simply reduce the intensity of the pedalling, so you are putting less strain on your heart and joints.
Health benefits of riding an electric bike
Riding an electric bike can have a lot of the same health benefits of riding a regular bike, but with reduced intensity.
- Improved mental well-being
- Better circulation
- Lowered Blood pressure
- Reduced risk of type ll diabetes and improvement in those who already have the condition.
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Stronger immune system
- Improved lung function
- Lower BMI
All of the above health benefits can be achieved by riding an electric bike regularly at a moderate intensity. It’s worth remembering that in order to feel the full benefits, you may need to make some lifestyle changes. Including changing your diet, reducing alcohol intake and stopping smoking.
The Smart e-bikes project is a long-term research project being carried out by Brighton University and covers everything from fitness to the environmental benefits of using an electric bike.
Understanding ebike pedal assist
To understand how electric pedal assist works, we’ll start by looking at the two main types of pedal sensing systems currently employed on e-bikes.
Cadence Pedal Assist Sensor
This type of pedal sensor is commonly found on budget e-bikes and measures pedal rotation. The more basic systems act very much like an on/off switch, meaning that as soon as you start rotating the pedals the motor kicks in.
On the older cadence pedal-sensing systems as soon as the pedals were rotated the motor would just kick in quite suddenly. Thankfully, the latest developments in controller software means what usually happens is, the sensor measures each pulse from a magnetic ring positioned on the bicycle’s crank and the controller feeds in assist from the motor gradually with each rotation of the pedal crank. Providing a smooth uptake of power.
Cadence-based systems are fine, but they do not provide the kind of intuitive levels of assistance found on torque sensing systems.
What is Ghost pedalling?
Ghost pedalling is where you are just spinning the pedals but not exerting any discernible force. You cannot ghost pedal a torque-sensing motor as it relies on force being applied to the pedals, but you can ghost pedal a cadence system. The benefit here is if you do find yourself tiring, you can select a low gear and just spin the pedals at a leisurely pace without exerting yourself.
Torque Sensing Pedal Assist
Torque sensors have been around for a few years now, and the technology has been refined to such a point that when you ride an e-bike with this kind of sensor, you actually feel like you have developed superhuman strength in your legs!
What at torque sensor does is measure the amount of force you are applying to the pedals, and as this force is constantly changing, you are always getting just the right amount of assist for your needs.
Most modern torque sensing systems also incorporate a cadence sensor and speed sensor to further refine the pedalling experience.
Torque Sensor vs Cadence Sensor
Personally, I think that the old argument about using a torque sensor vs cadence sensor really boils down to your own personal preferences.
From a fitness perspective, a torque sensor is going to give you a much smoother, and natural pedal assist. A torque sensor will take your effort and effectively amplify it. This can be a great confidence booster when you are just starting out.
Another benefit of the torque sensor is increased motor efficiency, meaning you will always get a greater battery range as the motor will only ever be giving assistance to the rider when really needed.
Cadence pedal sensors also have their plus points. The main one being the instant nature of the assist. This can be especially helpful if you have knee problems which limit how much force you can apply.
Best type of electric bike to get fit
Electric bikes cover all disciplines from road bikes through to mountain bikes and gravel bikes. The most popular type of e-bike is the hybrid as this is a compromise between a mountain and road bike. For more information on buying an electric bike, check out my buyers guide here.
The type of bike you get will really depend on the kind of terrain you’ll be riding on. If it’s mainly tarmac, then you would be better of with a hybrid or road bike. If you are planning on riding mainly off-road then a decent electric mountain bike would be your best bet.
If you live in a very hilly area, you would be much better off with a mid-drive motor. For gently undulating terrain a rear hub motor will do the job well enough.
Another big deciding factor will be your budget. Thankfully, there are quite a few decent e-bikes around now in the sub-£1000 price bracket.
Ultimately you want something that is going to be comfortable, and reliable in the long-term. You can go for the self-build option as I did, but this should only be attempted if you are a confident in your abilities and you have the right tools.
Electric bike power output in relation to fitness training
When it comes to getting fit, if you’re riding an electric bike that produces too much power, it can minimise the health benefits. If you have a lot of power on tap, It’s always tempting to let the motor do all the work, when really you need the motor to be sharing the workload equally.
Most countries have laws governing the maximum amount of power an electric bike can produce before its considered a motorcycle.
In the UK, EU and Australia that limit is currently 250 watts of continuous power – equivalent to one third of a horsepower. The maximum assisted speed is also limited by law to 15.5mph (25 km/h). Once you exceed this speed the motor ceases to assist. There is a buffer zone, and some factory e-bikes I have ridden give assist to about 17 mph.
The maximum power output is also flexible. Most 250 watt e-bikes can produce short burst of power up to around 400 watts.
In the US you can ride an e-bike that produces up to 750w of power and a 20 mph top speed.
The main problem with the 250w limit (as I see it) is we all have different abilities and if you’re severely overweight and live in a very hilly area, this amount of power may not be enough to provide any meaningful help.
I can appreciate this predicament as when I first started riding an e-bike, I was over 280lbs in weight. I initially used a 500w hub motor e-bike, and even then I struggled with some of the hills where I live.
When I eventually made the transition to a mid-drive, I went for a 750w motor as it allowed me to fine-tune the assist I needed. On the flat I would be using no more than 100W, and I would incrementally increase that power depending on the steepness of the hill I encountered (bearing in mind there are a few 15-20% hills in my area).
Around the same time, I tried a 250w motor and found it just didn’t cut the mustard.
Fast forward 4 years, and I now only ride e-bikes to test and review them. I stopped riding an electric bike regularly in August 2017 and since then I’ve covered over 10,000 miles on a regular road bike.
If I now ride a 250w e-bike it feels very quick to me. So I can see things from both sides of the fence.
Does riding an Electric Bike help you lose weight?
Firstly, if you’re overweight (like I was), riding an electric bike on its own isn’t going to be enough to help you lose a substantial amount of weight. You’re going to need to make changes to your dietary intake. My Achilles heel was a diet high in empty calories, particularly alcohol, sugary drinks, pizza and fast food.
I’m not an expert on dieting, but the way I see it is it’s just a case of using common sense. Sugar is the main enemy, cut it out as much as you possibly can and avoid starchy foods. Try and eat more green vegetables, protein and foods that are rich in good fats. Certain carb-rich foods like porridge are beneficial as they provide good quality fuel, that your body can convert into energy.
Riding a pedalec requires the pedals to be turned in order for the motor to activate. This means, even if you just go on a nice and easy ride without any big hills, the very fact that you are spinning the pedals will help you burn calories.
Starting out – your first ebike ride
When it comes to riding, firstly you need to make sure your bike is set up correctly for you. If this means going to your local bike shop for a bike fit, it will pay dividends in the future. Riding a badly set-up bike will effect your pedalling efficiency, and may even have a detrimental effect on your knees and back.
If you are riding an e-bike for the first time, it would be worth spending a little time familiarising yourself with the gears and the electric assist functions.
How many calories you burn will relate to how much work you put in. If you ride everywhere in full-power mode, then the electric motor will be doing most of the work. What you need to do is establish a balance, where you and the electric motor are sharing the workload equally. This will depend on your physical ability and current state of health.
The main thing to remember is don’t push yourself too hard when you first start out. Take it easy and progress from there.
Start off riding small, manageable distances and ride using an assist level you are comfortable with. Consistency is the key when cycling for fitness and weight loss. You will be far better off doing short regular rides, than going off and attempting 50 miles. I would aim for 10 miles a day 3 to 5 days a week.
Once you get your confidence up, you can start increasing your mileage. After a few weeks of regular riding you should notice things getting easier. This might be the time to try cycling with less assist, and maybe upping the intensity a little.
If you’re riding an electric bike with the specific aim of getting fitter and losing weight, there will come a stage when you will need to start stepping outside of your comfort zone. I’ve been there myself and it wasn’t until I started to push myself that I saw results.
I remember when I first discovered e-bikes back in the summer of 2016. For me it was a life-changing moment and I had no idea where my new-found love of cycling would lead me.
At the age of 47, I desperately wanted to get back into cycling, but I had spent most of my adult life as a heavy drinker and smoker. I also had an appalling diet and the last time I had cycled regularly was in my early 30’s.
Apart from my health, the main barrier I faced was the very hilly countryside where I live. There are literally steep hills in every direction, and on an average ride you would be guaranteed to climb at least 100ft for every mile ridden.
Because I was so overweight and unfit, every time I took my trusty old Saracen mountain bike out for a spin, I would get about 2 or 3 miles and inevitably give up and come back home.
I found it very difficult to keep myself motivated enough to cycle regularly. There was the odd time I would manage to go out a couple of times a week, but I just struggled. Every time I pushed myself I would be gasping for air and I could feel my heart pounding, like it was trying to jump out of my chest.
At this stage I had already managed to give up smoking and drastically change my diet, but the years of self-neglect were still evident in my general fitness and weight.
It was around this time I was speaking with a friend who asked me if I’d tried an electric bike. To be honest, I had heard about electric bikes, but never really gave it any thought. So I decided to go out and buy a cheap, rear hub motor powered hybrid bike.
At the time, I didn’t know a lot about electric bikes, and I made an uninformed, impulsive purchase. The bike in question (pictured above) was basically a £125 hybrid bike with a rear hub conversion kit fitted.
Despite its crude nature, I was immediately impressed with the amount of pedal assist available and started to go cycling on a daily basis – any excuse I could find for going out, I would go. Need to go to the shop… take the bike, need to post a letter… take the bike, got to go to the bank… take the bike. You get the picture!
Then one day I ran out of battery about 4 miles from home, with a couple of steep climbs to go. This thing was an absolute pig to pedal without any assist, and I found myself having to walk the steeper hills.
I quickly decided I needed a lighter bike with a rigid frame and mid-drive motor, this was my first Bafang mid-drive conversion.
This bike was a game-changer, and even though it was still fairly heavy with the motor and battery fitted, you had 9 levels of assist to choose from so I could fine-tune the amount of assist I needed.
What I did over time was set myself goals of incrementally reducing the amount of assist I was using for certain hills until such a time as I could just about get up them with the assist switched off.
Another thing I noticed was as the months went by, the weight started to come off. At this stage I was cycling between 50-80 miles a week, sometimes more.
By the summer of 2017, I was ready to take the plunge, and I brought myself a cheap used road bike for £100. The crazy thing is, I was expecting to find riding it for any distance a bit of a struggle at first, but to tell you the truth it was a fairly painless transition – I think it was helped by the fact the road bike only weighed about 10kg vs 20kg for the e-bike.
Fast forward to March 2020 and I have covered over 10000 miles without electric assist, including several 100 mile+ rides. At 50 years of age, I’m the fittest I’ve ever been!
My blood pressure has reduced significantly, and I have dropped 6 inches in waist size (from 42″ to 36″). Another remarkable improvement has been my mental health and general well-being. When I was unhealthy for all those years, I suffered bouts of depression and anxiety – this has all but gone.
The big question is, could I have achieved this without an electric bike? A lot of people would say I should have just gotten off my backside and rode a normal bike. But that’s a lot easier said than done when you’re incredibly unfit and suffering from depression.
I had a massive challenge in front of me and e-bikes were the bridge that help me get across the psychological barriers I had put in place. That sense of freedom and enthusiasm I experienced when I first started riding an electric bike reminded me of how I felt when I first started to ride as a child.
You can definitely get fit by riding an electric bike, you just need to be consistent and push the boundaries. E-bikes aren’t a quick fix, once you start riding one you’ll need to keep on riding. And if there comes a time you feel confident enough to ‘go it alone’ and start riding a good old fashioned regular bike again, make sure you take it easy to start with.
Riding an e-bike can be an incredibly liberating experience. They allow riders of all ages abilities to get back on two wheels without having to worry about hills. You can explore the countryside, use one for commuting or just getting around from A to B.
Another interesting side-effect of e-bike riding is you will feel better in yourself. There’s nothing like immersing yourself in the sights and sounds of the countryside to lift your spirits.
If you’re thinking about taking the plunge and buying an electric bike, I can’t recommend one highly enough. If you need any advice about what to purchase, please comment below and I will usually get back with a reply in 24hrs. Thanks for reading and happy riding!