Do you get any exercise with an e-bike, or is it cheating?
If there’s any persistent myth around the electric bike it’s the notion that somehow being assisted means you’re ‘cheating’ or not getting the exercise you would gain from a pedal cycle. It’s a common misconception and one that’s fairly easy to understand the origin of, so if you haven’t the time to read on, we suggest going and having a go for yourself. There’s no better way to gain an understanding of what an electric bike is and isn’t than slinging a leg over and taking a demo.
One thing that an electric bike most certainly is not is a motorbike. Occasionally that assumption is made and if you’ve kept tabs on the early product on the market then perhaps you may have caught sight of a twist and go throttle adorned to e-bikes. Nowadays those are almost entirely absent from the marketplace and not within our ranges. But why?
Pedal assist technology of today has advanced and actually, and the sensors on many bikes are actually waiting for your pedal input before you get anything back. Most systems will only spring into life after a full rotation of the pedals around the bottom bracket axle and from there on will be intelligently reading the pace of your efforts (your cadence) to understand just how much assistance to deliver. Of course, there are several levels of assistance that you will be able to manually cycle through with the touch of a button, but in all circumstances, you will be pedalling in order to receive any input from the motor. What this means is that, even on the turbo assist, you’ll still be getting some exercise.
Before we deep dive into some of the science there’s a simple but quite logical reason why electric bike riders do actually tend to get comparably similar exercise to pedal cycle riders, if not more. Consider this: electric bike riders tend to reach for their bikes more often than cyclists do, mostly because the assistance opens out the range of journeys a user will consider undertaking.
This tendency to exercise just as much comes in many forms; perhaps you begin to enjoy the commute and arriving fresher and less sweaty than you might on a standard cycle; or maybe you have come to realise you do not fatigue as quickly on a day out and therefore cycle further than you normally would. Alternatively, if you’re fond of big mountain trails, the motor’s assist will enable you to handle the pedal up to the tune of many multiples if the power was all your own, ultimately meaning more runs down the mountain and more fun. In short, electric bike riders have the tendency to get their bikes out more, ride for longer distances and replace more car or train trips as they become accustomed to the newly unlocked range. What journeys would you cycle if you had the legs and energy of an 18-year-old?
Now, don’t take our word for it, there are studies galore to prove it…
Let’s start with a piece of research out of Brigham Young University, UT. In this controlled test 33 mountain bike riders aged 18 to 65 were tasked with taking on 700 feet of elevation gain and a six-mile circuit. Within this was a solid mile of 5% grade climbing. For the experiment, the rides were registered on the tracking app Strava, first on pedal-powered mountain bikes and secondly on electric mountain bikes.
The results were fascinating and perhaps surprising, other than the average 12-minute faster completion of the loop. The rider’s had their heart rates tracked throughout the rides and the difference in heart rate turned out to be marginal, with the electric bike ride registering well within the intense exercise threshold. The difference? Just 10 beats per minute, on average, with mountain bike riders clocking a 155bpm average versus a 145bpm average with pedal assist. As the researchers pointed out, the lower reading is 94% of the higher.
What’s more, post-study the researchers revisited the idea that electric bikes may be cheating with the test pool and found that 61% had changed their view and totally understood the exercise benefits, all the while averaging a 4mph faster speed throughout, lending weight to the idea people may cycle further per ride without really considering the extra distance covered.
That was a small study, what about a pool of 10,000?
Seven European cities were the focal point of a 10,000 person study that tracked health and travel data from e-bike riders. The study’s pool tended to be older with high access to a car, so the stakes were high in determining whether people would veer toward the familiar car comforts or take to their e-bikes with increasing regularity. Of course, there was also a task at hand to discover and make measurable the health benefits of shifting transport patterns.
The researchers logged a consistent trend in higher ‘metabolic task minutes’ with e-bike riders versus pedal cyclists in the pool at roughly a 10% higher rating for the e-biker. Those who rode with assistance registered longer trip distances at an average of 9.4km to the bicyclists 4.8km.
Measuring the propensity for transport habit change, the researchers noted that in Denmark the average electric bike user reduced car use by 49%. In the UK, 36% shunted away from public transit and nearly half lowered their car use in favour of electric bike rides.
What about a study where it’s rainy and cold?
Who said that people don’t ride when the weather is unpleasant? Tell that to the Nordics.
A study out of Norway sought to find out the difference in physical exertion between electric bike and pedal cycle use and was able to determine some intriguing patterns by measuring VO2 max readings, which if you’re unfamiliar, are cardio readings. The paper, headlined Physical Activity When Riding an Electric Assist Bicycle, measured the breathing of six men and two women when cycling aboard a bicycle and a 250w rated electric bike set on turbo mode.
The findings were excellent at dispelling the cheating myth, finding that the electric bike users were exerting 8.5 times more than the resting rate, versus 10.9 times for the pedal cycle. This is not a massive margin and easily within intense exercise thresholds on both counts.
In taking breath counts, the researchers found that there was just a 12% difference in lung activity, with pedal cycles utilising 58% of their capacity versus 51% for pedal assisted users.
So, there you have it, electric bike riders are proven to be getting exercise, even with the maximum amount of assistance. What’s more, they’re covering more ground and getting their bikes out far more whilst cannibalising inactive car trips where no exercise is achieved. It’s fair to conclude, then, that electric bike riders may actually be getting more exercise than die hard cyclists in some instances. Certainly, riders of pedal assist bikes stand a better chance of having the energy in the tank at the end of the day for one final push uphill to catch the sunset, all the while experiencing less fatigue and being able to ride again tomorrow.