I love ebikes—they introduce non-cyclists to the sport, they keep cars off the road, and most of all, ebiking is crazy fun. But is it actually exercise? If so, how much of a workout are you really getting on an assisted ride?
Ebikes, or electric bikes, look like regular bicycles but have a motor (and battery) on board to assist your pedaling. That extra assist can help you climb hills without breaking a sweat, or just speed up an otherwise easy ride. If you’d like to learn more about what it’s like to ride one, here’s my review of the Propella 7S, the ebike I used to test the question of whether an ebike ride really counts as exercise.
The answer depends on what you mean by the question: On one hand, regular bikes provide a significantly better workout in terms of calories burned and effort expended than electric bikes, but on the other hand, studies suggest e-cyclists as a whole get as much, or even slightly more, total exercise as people who only ride non-assisted bicycles because they ride more often and ride longer distances.
How many more calories do you burn on a regular bike vs. an ebike?
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That a bike ride would take less rider effort with an electric motor assisting pedaling seems obvious, but it’s less clear how much less energy is expended. Ebikes still require pedaling to keep the bike in motion, and sometimes calorie burns will surprise you. Like everything calorie-burning-related, figuring out exactly how much an ebike is “cheating” is complicated, but I wanted to get a rough idea, so I ran the following informal experiment.
I rode the same bicycle—a Propella 7S, a bare-bones, class 1 ebike with no throttle—at three different assist levels in order to compare the calorie burn rate using the data provided by my Apple Watch. This is strictly based on heart rate, without specifying an activity, so that the fitness tracker wouldn’t make any assumptions about anything.
I rode the same five-mile route, with a 40ft elevation gain three times, at an average speed of 13mph—once with no assist, once with middle assist, and once with as much assistance as my bike could provide.
Obviously there are many factors that go into how many calories one burns during a bike ride—wind speed, temperature, the rider’s size and condition, gearing, the bike itself, etc.—so this is a rough guide in order to arrive at a ballpark figure, as opposed to anything exact.
Calories burned on a non-assisted ride: 270
I was surprised at the number of calories that my Apple Watch said I burned in this slightly less than half-an-hour ride, but I’m pretty heavy, and riding an ebike with no assist means pushing a fairly heavy bike too. I tracked the same ride with Strava with no heart-rate monitor and the activity set to “outdoor bike riding” and arrived at a similar number: 263 calories.
I also rode this same route with my “analog” bike, an old hardtail mountain bike from the 1990s standing in for “just a regular old bike,” and found I burned 284 calories according to Apple, and 293 calories according to Strava.
Calories burned with mid-level assistance: 143
The Propella has six levels of power if you count “no assist,” so I set mine at “level 2” for the middle choice. At mid level power, my Apple Watch said I burned 140 calories, about half as many as the no assistance ride. My Strava concurred. With the activity set to “e-bike ride” and no heart rate monitor, Strava estimated my trip burned 128 calories. (I got similar results with my fully assisted ride: Strava’s e-bike calculations seem to assume you’re riding with a mid-level of assistance.)
This is totally anecdotal, but the ride felt like half the effort of an unassisted trip. Lower-level assistance on ebikes tends to work by “smoothing out” the acceleration part of pedaling, giving more power when you’re getting your bike up to speed, and then providing tiny assists to keep it around the speed you’re cruising, which helps you maintain something like a steady speed. So it’s easy to start up but takes a little effort to keep going.
Calories burned with maximum assistance: 97
At the highest level of pedal assistance, my Apple Watch indicated it took fewer than 100 calories of effort to ride an ebike for five miles.
I’d have guessed about 50 calories. At the highest level of pedal assistance, riding takes very little effort. Pedaling is basically spinning the crank a turn or so and feeling the engine kick in, then coasting so you don’t go too fast. Most of my half hour biking like this was spent doing nothing but concentrating on not blowing the experiment by gaining speed. If I wasn’t trying to maintain a slow speed, I would have pedaled more, and thus burned more calories, and I would have taken a longer trip.
And that’s the good news about ebikes and exercise: Even if you get less fitness benefit in a mile-by-mile, laboratory-style comparison, people don’t ride like that in the real world.
Comparing “metabolic equivalent task minutes” in bikers and ebikers
Researchers from the University of Zurich surveyed 10,000 bike riders for a study published in the journal Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives and found that ebikers and traditional cyclists ultimately engage in a similar amount of moderate intensity physical activity per week. Not because the two modes of transportation are the same in terms of intensity, but because ebikers ride more often.
In keeping with my anecdotal evidence about “wanting to ride farther,” ebikers, on average, reported longer trip distances than their un-assisted counterparts—9.4 km vs. 8.4 km—and longer average distances traveled per day too—8.0 km per person, per day, vs. 5.3 km. Even though pushing an ebike with assist is a lot less effort, people tend to do it longer, resulting in a similar outcome.
The study also looked at people switching from one mode of transportation to another. As you’d expect, people who switched from cars, motorcycles, or public transportation to ebikes saw a rise in physical activity. Those who switched from old-school bikes to ebikes saw a slight drop in total fitness, but that drop was mitigated by an average increase in distance traveled overall and time spent ebiking.
In other words: Don’t pay attention to fitness purists who look down on ebikes. The only effective exercises are the ones you actually do, and if you find joy riding an ebike (and really, who doesn’t?) keep on riding—it’s way more of a workout than sitting on the couch.