Cycling & Fat Loss: Here’s What You Can REALLY Expect

Last updated: July 17th, 2023

Cycling is a fun and low-impact form of aerobic exercise, so it’s a great way to lose fat sustainably.

It won’t burn fat from specific areas (which is generally impossible), but it does help burn fat from your whole body. Roughly 1-2 lbs per week of fat loss is reasonable for most people. However, this requires a reasonable diet with fewer calories than you burn through cycling or other exercise.

None of this is medical advice. This is my opinion based on extensive research—including university studies in exercise physiology—as well as years of firsthand experience. That said, I’m not a healthcare professional. Be sure to talk to yours.

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How cycling burns fat

The exertion of a bike ride encourages your bike to break down fat stored into glucose. By cycling regularly, in conjunction with a healthy and modest diet, your stored body fat will visibly reduce.

Of course, it’s absolutely essential that your calories burned are greater than calories consumed. Think of it as a car’s gas tank: if you pump gas in faster than you burn it by driving, then the tank will inevitably overflow! But if you pump at a slower rate, then driving will inevitably deplete the tank.

Of course your physiology isn’t that simple in actuality, but fat loss does work the same way in principle. Cycling, or ideally a combination of activities, will help increase the rate at which your body burns calories. That leads to net fat loss…assuming you’re not eating even more calories yet.

The Mayo Clinic explains that a deficit of 500-1000 calories/day (meaning you burn that many more than you eat) should result in losing roughly 1-2 lbs/week, which is a safe and sustainable pace for most people. For reference, a 185-lb cyclist would burn that many calories in about 45-90 minutes of cycling.

Keep in mind that fat loss from cycling is also relative to your current weight. If you’re on the heavier side and just beginning a weight-loss transformation, then it’s reasonable to lose fat faster than a slimmer person trying to get extra-lean for a trip to the beach!

Where does cycling burn fat?

If you’re eating few enough calories, then cycling burns fat throughout your body, not just near the muscles it uses.

Clinical trials have shown that strength-endurance exercise (like cycling) does not cause fat loss near the most active muscles. Rather, it comes from all parts of the body in varying proportions that depend on genetic and hormonal factors.

That’s why so-called “spot reduction” or “targeted fat loss” is basically impossible. There’s some evidence that it occurs on a nearly microscopic level, but not reliably or visibly.

Does cycling burn stomach fat?

Yes, cycling will burn stomach fat, but not exclusively. Most people tend to gain and lose fat more quickly on their stomachs than other body parts. That’s especially true for men, although the proportion varies between individuals.

With regular cycling and a sensible diet, it’s highly likely that your stomach fat will slowly and sustainably diminish. Depending on your current body composition and diet, you might notice a subtly leaner midsection in a few weeks, but don’t be surprised if it takes multiple months to see a significant change.

Besides looking our best, a trim waistline is also surprisingly important for good health.

Belly fat is an especially important indicator as we get older. Some Harvard researchers believe waist circumference is the best simple estimate of leanness in older adults. We tend to lose muscle and gain fat simultaneously with age, so scale weight alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

Too much belly fat is also associated with heart disease, according to the American Heart Association, even for people at an ostensibly healthy weight. Likewise, a study at Columbia showed that excess abdominal fat stresses the liver in ways that promote diabetes.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to hop on my bike right now!

Will cycling reduce thigh fat?

Cycling will also reduce thigh fat, but not exclusively. Keep in mind that you may develop stronger and more toned quadriceps (thigh muscles) from cycling, so your thighs may became leaner without becoming drastically smaller.

For most people, especially for women, thigh fat is some of the most stubborn to lose. But don’t let that compel you to try extreme, unsustainable, or outright dangerous fat-loss tactics. As long as your diet, cycling, and other exercise are in order, it’s just a matter of patience and of subtle dietary adjustments that add up over time.

It isn’t always as quick as we’d like, but the only prudent choice is to simply trust the process.

Cycling, walking, or jogging for weight loss?

All three can be terrific ways to lose weight and improve your cardiovascular fitness. Cycling is gentler on your joints and therefore more sustainable for many people. You can also cycle very intensely without creating additional impact.

With all three, you can lose the same amount of weight provided you work equally hard for equally long. In reality, jogging tends to be more vigorous than walking, so you’d lose more fat by jogging than walking for the same period.

Cycling can go either way. At a relaxed pace, like coasting downhill, it’s even less work than walking. But if you’re sprinting, or climbing a steep hill, it can be even more exhausting than jogging.

Choosing a bike for weight loss

If you want to start cycling for fat loss and fitness, then start with literally any bike you find comfortable and fun to ride. Exertion, not speed, is what matters!

For most people, an upright city bike (or even a traditional Dutch bike) is a terrific choice. They’re supremely comfortable to ride, and well suited to pavement and well-maintained dirt/gravel. They’re also easy to accessorize for commuting and errands, which might help you build cycling into an active lifestyle. They typically cost $500-$1000 for something simple but worth owning.

If you’re more of a speed demon, then consider a hybrid bike. These weight less than city bikes, and put you in a forward-leaning posture that’s more powerful and aerodynamic, albeit less comfortable. There are great hybrids around $500, some super-light hybrids for several times more, and plenty of models in between. Most are also conducive to commuting and errands, but probably won’t include the requisite accessories off the rack.

Many other styles, like gravel and mountain bikes, are also great choices if you’ll ride primarily off-road.

My own background with fat loss & cycling

This topic is a little personal, so here’s a quick word about where I’m coming from.

I was a very chubby kid. Actually, well into my teens. I was generally active and played sports most of the year, but simply struggled to control my eating for too many years…and it showed.

But when cycling turned into a serious, almost daily hobby in junior high, something interesting happened. I started getting leaner without consciously making other changes. It wasn’t instant and it wasn’t magic. I simply burned more calories while eating roughly the same amount, and the fat gradually went away.

That was a slow process, but didn’t require much conscious effort because I took pleasure in the new activity.

A few years later, there were some stressful periods in life which I responded to by eating even more. Sure enough, even though I was still cycling, some of the weight returned. Later still—toward the end of high school—things became easier, the over-eating impulse diminished, and the weight fell away once again. (That change has been permanent thanks to some other lifestyle changes, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Those years really aren’t fun to reflect on, but I bring them up because they make an important point: you cannot out-exercise a bad diet.

For that matter, exercise alone cannot avert health problems. Dumping a bit of paint thinner into your gas tank won’t make it overflow, but it sure will be hard on the engine!

Fat loss is a terrific reason to take up cycling, but it needs to be part of a balanced lifestyle, including attention to any mental factors that make it hard to eat healthfully and with restraint.

Having been there and done that, I earnestly wish you all the best losing that excess fat and building a fit, healthy body that takes you on many more bike rides to come!