Exercise questions: most efficient way to burn calories? (biking vs. running, etc)

I try to work out between five and seven days a week. For two years I’ve been using an elliptical machine off and on, throwing in the occasional bit of street running and routine hiking. It’s all pretty good, but I work on campus about ten miles away a few days a week, and have been really enjoying biking in–saves gas and time since in theory, I don’t have to schedule a workout session during the day.

I’d been considering the bike rides, about twenty-five minutes in either direction, as a replacement for my usual workout, but I’m wondering how good the exercise really is. When I finish thirty minutes on the elliptical, or thirty minutes of street running or field hiking, I’m sweaty, moderately out of breath, and feel noticeably spent–certainly not to the point of exhaustion, just moderately challenged. After a twenty-five minute bike ride, on a mountain bike on a paved river bike trail (very gentle ups and downs), set to the highest gear, and pedaling as fast as possible, I’m not really that winded. I’m not terribly sweaty, my heart rate very quickly recovers, and other than my bum feeling a bit bruised, I’m pretty comfortable when I reach my destination.

I’m enjoying the bike rides very much all around, but I’m wondering if it’s burning very many calories. It doesn’t feel like much of a challenge–does that actually have anything to do with the number of calories I’m burning? Or is it simply that I’m using different muscles than with the other forms of exercise, and I burn the same number of calories either way? For the record, I am significantly overweight, though have lost a rather drastic amount of it in the last couple of years and believe myself to be fairly physically capable, despite the layer of extra padding. I am eating well and exercising routinely for the goal of weight loss and general cardiac health and physical fitness.

So, question: are different forms of exercise better calorie-burners than others? Or does it not make much difference whether you’re running, biking, etc, as long as you’re moving and keeping your heart rate up?

The best exercise is the exercise you’ll do so if your enjoying that then by all means.

The fact that you’re doing anything puts you way ahead of the game.

Well okay, granted, but what I want to know is: is biking really exercise, if I don’t… err… feel like I’ve worked out when I’m done?

My WAG on why you feel less tired on the bike than the elliptical is that for me, at least, doing exercise in the gym is so fookin’ boring that it seems to hurt WAY more than outdoor exercise.

Versus running outside, though, I think you’re right. 30 minutes of running is almost always more work than 30 minutes of biking, unless that 30 minutes of biking is all uphill.

Depending on your course, it might not really be all that work. If it’s mostly flat, you might be right - it might not be all that work. Bikes can be pretty efficient in that way. You need some hills or some distance to make it into a good workout. And then it can be a VERY good workout. 30 minutes going uphill can be as good as 30 minutes of running.

If you’ve got any extra cash hanging around, a heart rate monitor is a great tool for figuring out just how much effort you expend while doing basic exercise. That’s how I figured out the “working out in a gym is boring” thing I mention above - wearing a monitor, I could see that the cardio effort I put out while doing indoor exercise was almost always less than running/biking/whatever outside, but it sure felt a LOT harder.

Biking is great exercise. However, you are right to suspect that you won’t burn as many calories as running or the elliptical. As a result, you will have to bike for a longer period of time to get the same results. That said, a 25-mile bike ride every day is certainly nothing to sneeze that. Depending on what you’ve been burning in your workouts, I don’t see why that couldn’t replace your regular workout. Try using an online calorie counting site such as sparkpeople.com or my-calorie-counter.com to estimate how many calories you would burn on your bike rides. You can then compare that to what you’ve been doing.

When it comes to cardio, two things really matter: heart rate and duration. How you feel about it could be anything - I’m in good shape, I love running and hate bicycling, while others in the same shape are the other way around. I’d never participate in competitive biking but do long-distance races whenever I can, other people will gladly bike for 10 hours in a row but never try to keep up with me for ten kilometres if they can avoid it.

Use a heart rate monitor and compare your different forms of exercise. It’s all about the heart rate.

To answer your OP, as mentioned above, keeping your heartrate up is key. So anything you do that will keep your heartrate up for a reasonable length of time will be great cardio.

That said, I can think of some reasons you may not be getting the benefits from those 25 minute rides to/from work:

  • coasting. Whether running or on the elliptical, you don’t ever “coast” - you tend to be continually working for the time period. But it is a pretty natural part of biking.
  • traffic stops. I assume you need to cross streets in the 10 miles to work, so it is reasonable to assume you don’t hit every intersection without needing to stop. Each stop is a break.

I would HIGHLY recommend adding the bike rides to your workouts. But don’t look to them for replacing the stuff you do. The other thing you want to consider is that if you do anything (exercise wise) for a while, your body “gets good” at it. So your muscles become more accustomed to the exercise. You want to keep challenging your body to get the most benefit. So adding a different exercise to the mix will help with this.

Cycling can range from very low intensity to very high intensity depending on how you approach it. Coasting has been mentioned, and that’s one of the bigger factors in determing how hard your workout will be. In short: don’t coast. When cycling, it can be tempting to let your speed carry you down a slight grade or to a stop. And if you’re trying to conserve energy on a commute, that’s a good idea. But if fitness is your goal, you should be adopting the same philosophy as racers: don’t stop pedaling, because if you can afford to coast, that just means you could be going faster.

When I ride, my feet only stop moving when I have to put one down at a stop. I never coast. I also resist the urge to cruise at an easy pace, with low pressure on the pedals…that’s not much different than coasting. Basically, I go as fast as I can to keep my heart rate up in the top of my aerobic range. That’s the most important thing to remember…if you’re not working hard enough, you can always go faster.

Also, don’t pedal slow. Most people who don’t bike a lot have a very low cadence, but that turns cycling into an anerobic strength-training exercise. These same people generally find that cycling makes their legs tired easily, but they don’t breath very hard. But if you’re doing it right, you should always get out of breath before your legs fatigue. This is generally accomplished be keeping a high rate (like 90 rpm) on the crank, and spinning consistently. You say you’re pedaling as fast as possible…but do you know how fast that might be? If you’re like most people, that may not be as fast as you think it is. Again, that’s just because of the aforementioned tendency of people to crank hard and slow. Fast for them is not the same as fast for me or someone else used to cranking at high cadence.

You may derive more aerobic benefits from not going all the way to your highest gear, and spinning even faster. It also could be that your mountain bike just isn’t geared high enough, so you’re maxing out your gears. Consider moving to a faster bike if you’re only going to be on flat paved trails. Or, as a cheaper alternative in the meantime, put a new cassette on the back that gets you down to a 12- or 11-tooth cog.

But the bottom line is to pay attention to your heart rate. If it’s high, you’re working hard, no matter how exhausting you think the activity is. It might jjust be a sign that you’re really cut out for cycling. Congrats…it beats the hell out of running.

Get a fixed gear bike: no coasting, and you brake with your legs. That’ll keep your heart rate up more.

No coasting, I figure since the point is getting exercise, I don’t burn calories if I’m just sitting on the bike and letting momentum do the work for me. I am pedaling as hard and fast as I can, until the pedals are just spinning with little or no resistance. The bike just doesn’t go any faster. I didn’t have to go into work today, so this morning I did the whole thing round-trip, there and back, and timed myself at forty minutes. Seems pretty speedy, but I have no idea how this compares to other bikes and riders.

There are no traffic stops. We’ve got a gorgeous bike trail that starts a few blocks from my house, so once I hit the trail there are no stops between there and campus.

I am definitely running out of breath or feeling my heart rate increase before (or, actually, without) feeling muscular effects, that’s mostly why I am unsure whether or not I’m actually burning any calories. I expect muscle fatigue and am not feeling it–if I’m reading you correctly though, this is how it should be?

See above–I’m pedaling fast enough so that there’s no longer any tension on the pedals, they’re just spinning. Is there a way to be pedaling faster or is it an issue with the way my bike is geared? It’s just an el-cheapo mountain bike from a sporting goods store, seven gears on the right and three options on the left. Both are set to the highest mark.

Are calorie counters generally accurate? The one on my elliptical tells me I’m burning 600 calories in 30 minutes, while sparkpeople.com says I’d burn on the order of 900 calories an hour with a bike ride. Can either of those numbers possibly be correct? Both seem terribly high to me.

Yeah, from unadulterated terror.
As for the OP, cycling can be great exercise. The use of a HRM is useful because it is common go at an easier pace than you want or started at if you are not paying attention. I can find myself trying to keep a heart rate between 150 and 160 on a ride, and looking at the HRM and seeing a rate of 130.

Riding with other people who are faster than you helps.

Biking is a very efficient exercise - you’re essentially sitting on your aris, so you’ll alway burn more calories running in a given time. 25 mins is not really that long on the bike, 50 mins a day will be awesome for all round, (wo)man in the street type fitness, but it’s not enough time if you’re looking for more than that.

It doesn’t sound like you’ve got a good handle on what constitutes ‘fast’ on a bike. The best way of getting a feel for this is to get a cheap cycle computer that shows speed and distance (or go riding with someone who has one). Given you’re riding a fairly basic bike, some benchmarks might be: 20 mph for 25 mins would be absolutely caning it - you’d have to be helped off the bike at the end. 15mph would be respectably fast, you’d feel like you’ve given sustained effort to keep that up, 10 mph would probably be very comfortable over 25 mins. Of course this is all subject to how fit you are / how basic your bike is.

Aerodave is right about spinning the gears - no cyclist ‘spins’ the hardest gear over a sustained period, it’s just not an efficient way of cycling fast. If it really is as easy to spin the pedals in the highest gear as you’re saying then your gearing must be unusually short.


Don’t be afraid to shift your gears and find out what works for you. Forget about the ‘highest mark’ setting. What you need to tell us is the poisition of the chain on both the front chainring (the gears on the crank) and the rear cogs (the gears on the rear wheel).

The gears on the crank are commonly called the small, middle, and large chainrings, but you can also refer to them by the number of teeth on the ring. One possible combination would be 22t (small), 32t (middle), and 42t (large). The ‘t’ after the number just means teeth. The small rings are EASIER to pedal than the big rings.

The gears (or cogs) on the rear wheel are refered to by the number of teeth. I’d guess that your smallest gear has 12 teeth and the largest has 32 teeth. The small cogs are HARDER to pedal than the big cogs.

The way to describe a particular gear is by the front and rear combination. Using the above examples, the combination of the middle chainring on the crank and the smallest cog on the back would be a 32x12.

I suspect that when you say the shifters are both in the highest position, you are in one of 4 situations (I’m using hte above number for an example, if your gears are different numerically, the idea still applies).

  1. Large chainring, small cog - this would be a 42x12, and a very hard gear for a new biker. You couldn’t spin it out, so I’m sure this isn’t the case.

  2. Small chainring, biggest cog. 22x32. You could easily spin this out and be going about 2 mph. I’m sure you are not riding in this gear either.

  1. Small chainring, smallest cog. 22x12. This gearing would fit with your scenario.

  2. Biggest chainring, biggest cog. 42x32. This gearing would fit with your scenario.
    So you are riding in either case 3 or 4.

Try this. Move the left shifter and put the chain on the middle ring. Leave it there for the entire ride. Use the right shifter to shift the rear gears. You should be able to find a good gear ratio for your ride. When you feel like you are pedalling as fast as you can but still want to go faster, shift into the higher gear.

Once you learn what the rear shifter does, then start playing with the front shifters.

Well, unfortunately unless you have a heart rate monitor (which I’d really love to have), it’s hard to get an accurate calorie count. Sparkpeople tells me I burn about 378 calories in half an hour on the elliptical, while the elliptical itself tells me I burn 325-330 depending on the day. My intention in recommending you do that was so that you could enter in what you usually do and enter in what you’d like to do on the bike and compare the calories burned. Does that make sense? My brain is fried at the moment so I’m afraid I might be typing gibberish here.

Use this (my new favourite site since I started running) to figure out how far you are actually cycling. From this you can get your speed, and people can get a handle on how hard you are working.


Neat site, but unfortunately, the bike paths aren’t on the map. Taking surface streets that parallel the river/bike path, it’s ten miles by car. The bike path runs along the river and through a heavily wooded area, so it meanders a bit more than the surface street does, but I’d guess it’s about the same distance. I can catch glimpses of the road across the river the whole way, except where the trees are too thick on one side or the other. It’s pretty much a straight shot either way.

Ten miles one way, or round trip? Because if you did 20 miles in 40 minutes, you are a GOD. If you did 10 miles in 40 minutes, that’s 15 mph average, which isn’t too shabby. Especially for a mountain bike, and very especially for a low-cost heavy mountain bike. So it sounds to me like you’re doing just fine.

I’m a committed amateur…I’m not blazing fast, but I’ve held my own in a few entry-level races. I’ll average around 20 mph on a flat trail over the course of an hour if I’m not trying to kill myself…like I would on a commute. My wife is more of a 16-17 mph type, and she works as hard as I do. These are both road bikes, by the way. For comparison’s sake, you’ll want to knock off a couple mph for the mountian bike penalty.

But in the end, speed isn’t important. It’s effort. And the best way to measure that would be to get a heart rate monitor. They can be had for around $30 and up. Get one, and play with it a whiel to learn what your ranges are. You need to your own key numbers for various phases:

“I’m not even breaking a sweat” (120 for me)
“I could do this all day, but I can tell I’m getting a workout” (140-165)
“I can only hold this for a short while” (170s)
“I’m going to die any second now” (185)

You numbers will be different. But knowing them will let you figure out how effect any given workout will be. I definite recommend one if you’re cycling for fitness’s sake.

ETA: You can use the satellite view on the gmap-pedometer to trace over the bike path. (Assuming you’ve got high enough resolution over your path to see the trail.)

Okay, I called up a friend who’s a bike path junkie and lives just up the street from me. She says it’s a smidge over eight miles, and I did the round trip minus the last quarter mile which necessitates a long wait for crossing a big intersection, today in a hair over forty minutes. Round it all around and say 15 miles in 45 minutes, does that sound plausible?

I will check into heart rate monitors, for sure. The one built into my elliptical doesn’t seem to be consistent at all. I’ll also play with the gears on my next ride.

This has mostly been my husband’s commuter bike. I’m enjoying the ride so much I’m thinking about getting one of my own–any recommendations or suggestions?

Fifteen miles in 45 minutes does sound surprisingly fast for riding along a bike path, especially on a mountain bike. I do a fair amount of cycling, and on flattish roads I rarely average more than 16mph on my MTB. Maintaining 20mph on a flat road requires a LOT of effort, and there is no way I could average 20mph for 45 minutes, certainly not on a cheap and cheerful fat-tyred MTB.

Incidentally, the question “most efficient way to burn calories” is something of an oxymoron, as efficiency normally means doing something for LESS energy. So I agree with other posters who say that the most efficient way is the way that you enjoy and will continue to do, even if it doesn’t burn quite as many calories.

If you are overweight, then cycling is a good form of exercise, as it puts less strain on your joints than jogging, say. Have you considered swimming? Of course, that would depend on having a poll nearby.

I suppose I meant “time efficient”–if I have to bike for an hour and a half to burn the same number of calories as a half-hour on the elliptical, it’s a less time-efficient pursuit, no?

Yes, street running hurts my knees quite a bit after a while, that’s one reason I bought the elliptical. I love the elliptical machine workout, but goddamn that’s one mind-numbing half-hour. I love love love to swim, but using the community swim center here is very expensive–sucks, that, because it’s half a block from my house.

Also, the idea of wearing a bathing suit in public makes me break out in hives. :wink: