Friday, January 29, 2010

Cycling and Weight: Realistic Outlooks

It may be controversial, but weight is such a commonly discussed topic among women (albeit usually in private), that it feels disingenuous to pretend that I do not think about it myself. Specifically, I want to say a few words about the relationship between weight and cycling. In many cycling blogs, I find the recurring suggestion that "cycling will make you thin" - whether explicit or implicit. Transportation cycling is presented as not only convenient and fun, but as a natural form of exercise that can improve your physique. Replacing 20 minutes per day of sitting in a car with 40 minutes of pedaling does indeed seem like a great way to get in shape. But if your main goal is weight loss, what is realistic to expect?

Cycling is great exercise, and exercise leads to weight loss - if (and this is a crucial if) all else remains constant. In other words, if you used to drive to work and now you cycle, while maintaining the same diet as before and the same amount of physical activity outside your commute, you will lose weight.

The problem is that all else usually does not remain constant. For one thing, cycling makes us ravenous, and more often than not we end up consuming enough (or even more than enough) extra calories to make up for the fact that we cycled to work instead of driving. So while we do build up muscle which will cause parts of our body too look more shapely, our weight is likely to remain the same unless a conscious effort is made to also control our diet. This does not entirely coincide with the "cycling will make you thin" narrative - which presents the life of cyclists as filled with tasty foods, beer, and weight loss. If you cycle a lot, but also eat a lot, your weight will stay the same. If you cycle a bit, but eat even more, your weight will increase. That is the reality.

Even if you are not looking to lose weight, but are in the "cycle a lot, eat a lot" category, there are caveats to consider. Over the Summer and Fall, I cycled so much that my diet changed drastically just to accommodate the constant energy loss and hunger pains. Things that I hadn't freely indulged in for years - pizza, ice cream, obscene amounts of chocolate, random snack foods - became regular dietary staples. As long as I continued to spend large portions of my day on a bike, I could feel like a pre-teen at a slumber party again when it came to eating, with (seemingly) no ill effect.

But what happens when that amount of daily cycling becomes unsustainable - due to either the arrival of a harsher season, travel, or a change in work schedule? Once you get used to consuming large amounts of food, it can be extremely difficult to cut down, even after your level of physical activity decreases. The reasons for this are partly physiological (stomach size; metabolic processes), but to an even greater extent psychological. We use food not just for sustenance, but for comfort and for social bonding. Having grown used to eating pizza and ice cream late at night with friends, it can feel sad to give that up. Once we grow accustomed to a lavish diet during a period of intense cycling, chances are we will be tempted to maintain it even during those times when we do not spend as much time on a bike. This can lead to an overall weight gain for those who cycle.

I've had several private discussions now with cyclists who feel disappointed because they hoped to lose weight through cycling, only to have gained it. They don't understand what went wrong. Moreover, they feel ashamed because many cycling blogs do project the image of the "healthy and fit" (meaning slender) cyclist and contrast this image to that of the overweight driver who eats burgers and guzzles cola behind the wheel.

Cycling and weightloss only go hand in hand if you control for the other factors, and that is not always simple. For me it has been effortful to prevent out-of-control weight gain this winter, after my time on a bicycle fell to maybe 10% of what it was in earlier seasons. What has been your experience?

69 comments:

  1. A recreational cyclist, riding on fairly flat terrain, at moderate speed, for an hour, will only burn a few hundred extra calories. A couple of cookies will wipe that out. However, they will improve their health and avoid driving a car. On the other hand, if they choose to complete a mountain stage of the Tour de France, they can have all the chocolate cake they want that evening without fear of obesity.

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  2. I agree with Jefe - it's important to remember that improving one's health can't be reduced to losing weight. Whether or not adding cycling into your routine results in weight loss, it will provide good cardiovascular exercise, which is key to improved health.

    Spencer Wright
    Traffic Cycle Design

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  3. Nice and interesting post.

    I will share my experience. I was fairly active prior to biking so I wasn't using biking for weight loss, but defiently saw it as a benefit to add to my current exercise regeime.

    However for me I def need to do a lot of hi intense cardio work outs if I am really looking at weight loss. Riding around here and there at a slow rate is not going to do it. It will however make my legs strong and as a strengthening thing my legs are fairly rock solid. My ass is too. ( yeah I just said that in public!) But my true holder of calories and fat is my tummy and biking does nothing for that.

    What riding in a utility riding style has done for me was give me ease in training for the bike portion of a tri. After cargo biking- a road bike was like a jet plane. It felt effortless and while I am not fast- it was not a hardship to do that portion.

    This winter has been hard for me. I was burned out from going to the gym almost daily for about 2 years and haven't been to the gym much all fall-winter. My belly is quite flabby much to my dismay. I am about to reboot my work outs in prep for summer since spanx won't cut it then ;-)

    I've also come to the conclusion that at 37 I can't eat what I want and that bums me out.

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  4. I think people focus way too much on weight as an indicator of health. While it does have something to do with your overall health, your weight and your body mass index are only really small indicators of your overall health, which is definitely improved by regular activity, even if it doesn't result in weight loss.

    That being said, diet has a ton to do with it as well. Eating foods which comprise a well-rounded set of the stuff your body needs to function normally (which includes fats and carbohydrates, by the way) will help you actually process the food you eat more productively, and that will help both your weight and your health. If all you eat is ice-cream cones (or heavily processed foods full of chemicals and artificial ingredients, or all protein and no carbs or fat, or all carbs and no protein or fat), no matter how much you cycle you're not going to be healthy.

    I find it a matter of balance in life - you have to find the right balance between the nutrition you need, the activity you need, and the indulgence you need :)

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  5. My observations have been similar. I don't know if cycling makes me want to eat more, or if I already want to eat more and cycling gives me an excuse :-)

    One thing I found that was counter-intuitive and disappointing what that when I was cycling with great intensity (long distances and higher speeds), I gained a lot of weight. Operating at a high heart rate for hours on end caused high levels of cortisol. Sure, I ate more, but not that much more. It seemed like everything I ate got stored as fat. Another thing that happens is when I'm riding long distances day after day on a tour, I bloat up with water weight. That takes about a week to go down, but usually there's no net weightloss from where I was before the trip.

    It also seems like this problem is more unique to women, our hormones, etc. All the men I know have lost a lot of weight cycling. I'm curious if others have observed this.

    Oddly enough, if I spend an hour a day swimming laps, I slim right down. Cycling an hour a day doesn't seem to make any difference.

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  6. Hear hear! My riding routine hasn't changed over the winter, but I have been making a concerted effort to have a healthier diet. It's working, and that makes me happy. For most people, increasing their physical activity will make them healthier even if they don't lose weight. But in the bigger picture, I think that the go-go-go socially isolated American suburban lifestyle encourages people to turn to food for security and comfort.

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  7. Velouria, I applaud your vision. When I returned to cycling after 20 years, I thought it was for my health. It turned out to be for the joy of riding. Everything else is gravy.

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  8. If you ride at a Copenhagen slow lane rate, you are doing less exercise than if you had walked the same amount of time; and only the most dramatically out of shape will find this to be real exercise of the sort under consideration.

    In fact, in an idealized system, you could bicycle from Boston, to San Francisco and back to Boston at that pace, WITHOUT EATING, and loose - Oooo, maybe ten pounds ( I don't feel like checking the math). You'd put two of them back on again the first time you ate ("Pardon me, but could we restore your liver?").

    Here's something to think about though; if you start cycling and moderate your diet you may find you go down a dress size - and GAIN weight.

    Why? Because unless you are a competitive hill climber weight is about the most meaningless parameter you could pay attention to.

    As the old joke goes:

    Prima: Want to lose 10 pounds of ugly fat?
    Secunda: Yes!
    Prima: Well cut off your head.

    Blimey! This redistribution of body mass is trickier than I thought.

    Here are a couple of exercises to try:

    1. Throw a lean steak into the bath tub and observe its behavior.
    2. Pour a bottle of cooking oil into a bath tub and observe its behavior.

    Than go to the library and check out the works of Covert Bailey; a decent little writer and brilliant, funny speaker. His popular introductory works (Fit or Fat) on exercise physiology are the only ones I've seen worth a crap.

    "What has been your experience?"

    I have "winter pants" and don't worry about it much. My sarongs always fit.

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  9. A few hundred extra calories burned is significant for a short-ish woman who has tried a number of exercise types and is delighted to have found something she loves doing. I agree that other health benefits of cycling should not be forgotten but for me personally, and I suspect for many women, weight loss is a strong motivation to exercise. There must be other people out there enduring the grind of the gym as I used to, feeling deflated and guilty when they can't quite drum up the motivation to go after a long day in the office. I would never go back to that now and it makes me want to tell people how great an alternative cycling can be if they want to lose weight.

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  10. We bike a lot during the summer - long trips, strenuous hills - and it is true what they say - Men can lose weight just by increasing exercise. Women need to add in reducing portions/ calories. (Just one of life's small injustices.)

    I also agree with Jefe and Spencer above - cycling makes life better in so many ways, it would be a pity to reduce its value to weight-loss.

    (Have you see today's Copenhagen Cycle Chic? - she's lovely, not necessarily rail-thin, but healthy and vibrant looking - and that's what cycling can provide!)

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  11. I agree with Spencer. Weight can NOT be the only criteria for overall health. I believe transportational cycling can be used as part of your daily exercise, but unless you're covering a lot of miles( a la Large Fella) AND watching your caloric intake, you won't lose weight. If during the winter, you cycle less and want to eat the same, you may gain weight. The great thing is that all the other benefits remain!

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  12. A good, truthful post on a sensitive subject!
    I've had this experience both with bicycling and before that with running- I've learned the hard way that just because you're running 50 miles a week doesn't mean that you can eat whatever you like without consequences.

    I've always had a big appetite, and food is a big part of my life, and I do feel that exercise does allow me to eat more of the things I love with fewer consequences.

    However, especially as I'm getting older, I've come to terms that I need to compensate for less exercise, and do a couple of weeks of "tune up" diet this time of year to compensate for unbridled eating over the holidays and decreased activity levels in general.

    I do agree with the other posters, my experience is cycling will make you more fit and make you feel stronger and more healthy no matter what you weigh. (and weight is a poor barometer of fitness). Transportational cycling is also a good way of adding exercise to a busy schedule. It takes essentially the same amount of time for me to T as to bike to work, and I get a lot more exercise in the same amount of time.
    I'll also point out that cycling, as a non- weightbearing exercise, is a great way for people who are very heavy or out of shape (or beat up from years of running) to build strength, balance and endurance without strain on joints and ligaments.

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  13. I started cycyling to work this past spring weighing 138-140 lbs on a 5'6 frame and within two months I'd lost almost ten pounds! (I spent the previous year going to a gym close to three times a week and didn't lose more than two pounds by comparison.) But yes, I did notice that I was definitely feeling hungrier than I felt prior to taking up commuting by bike and was scarfing down more food than usual to make up for all the calories I was burning through cycling. I thought that I would definitely gain back the weight over the winter months as my riding has decreased to only about twice a week, or weather-permitting, but I'm still happy to report that I'm holding steady at 130 now. I feel like I have my old body back (the body I had before I got a desk job.) I imagine when spring rolls around I will probably lose 3-5 pounds again and be at my ideal weight of 125.

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  14. Hello! I have been reading for some time but this is my first comment. Good for you for actually giving voice to this issue that is usually only discussed between girlfriends. You brought up some really good points. It has been my experience that whenever I start exercising more (cycling included, obviously) I have to be really careful not to overcompensate with my eating. It's helpful to look at some kind of table of how FEW calories you're actually burning on your leisurely 20 minute bike ride to realize that it doesn't give you license to eat whatever you want. Unfortunately. Great blog, by the way!

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  15. wonderful post and very true; the staple of any "weight loss" anything is the simple formula of DECREASE INPUT / INCREASE OUTPUT. So many people think they can "miracle" away the pounds withour doing one of those 2 things.

    Another thing that people do not think about is that muscle mass is more dense (weighs more per sq/inch) than fat, so while a cyclist (or anyone engaging in an exercise regimen) may be losing fat they are also gaining muscle. One may lose inches but increase overall weight. The idea of "weight" is so convoluted because of societal pressure, advertising, and self-perception that people get stuck on that rather than overall health.

    No, one may not necessarily "loose weight" (unless they increase output and decrease input), but they are certainly casting off the shackles of a sedentary lifestyle, improving muscle tone, improving cardiovascular health, and just (I would hope, anyway) having a good time riding a bike!

    I have been riding very consistently for the past year, and relatively consistently over the past 5 years and my weight has not fluctuated more than a few pounds, but I have had to put a few new holes in my belts ;)

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  16. "I could feel like a pre-teen at a slumber party again when it came to eating" made me laugh out loud! I'm in the same boat as you pretty much. I think I may have lost 5 lbs since I started riding, but am holding steady at that weight. I have, however, started doing short (15-20 minute) rides through my neighborhood in the evening after dinner to see if using up some of those calories results in some weight loss. If it does, great, if it doesn't then at least I get one more in for the day!

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  17. To loose weight cycling requires either a LOT of cycling (lifestyle) or intense cycling (training). I try to do both when I can (warmer months). I also try to NOT modify my diet to reward myself but DO try to be stricter when I'm actively trying to loose weight. It is excercise just like running or walking on a treadmill only a LOT more fun and utilitarian (no mater how far I walked on the treadmill I never DID get to the bank!). Also, keep in mind the muscle really does weigh more than fat so as you begin or resume your active cycle of cycling in the spring your body will change appearance before you notice and significant change in weight.

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  18. Since moving somewhere where we need to have a car and I no longer walk everywhere, I find cycling is a good way to prevent my weight from going up. But I do try and discipline myself - I enjoy cycling and don't think of it as exercise per se, and so I don't feel the need to reward myself with extra calories as a result (although I will refuel with a Snickers bar if I'm on a long ride and get that hollow feeling coming on). Walking, on the other hand, really does drop off the inches, much more than cycling does - I was off the bike for a month once, and walking 20 mins to the station and back twice a day, and lost weight despite it being over Christmas. Fortunately, I've never been overweight, but I do know from past experience that when you buy a car, the pounds pile on, so I'm trying to nip any weight gain in the bud. Far easier not to have to lose it in the first place

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  19. Thank you all for the responses, I am pleased that this post struck a cord and relieved that no one is offended, yet.

    It shouldn't be about weight, but in our culture it often is. Most of the women I know who are my age +- 5 years (I am 30) have some sort of issue with weight and eating. They are either too thin, or overweight, or fluctuate between the two; they either have an eating disorder, or had an eating disorder at some point, or don't quite have one but are self-conscious or neurotic about food intake and size. I know almost no woman my age who is entirely neutral in her relation to food (i.e. eats when she is hungry, maintains a stable weight, and does not think about it too much) - and that's saying a lot.

    To Jefe, Spencer, Michael, and others who point out the weight vs health difference: Of course I agree with you, but consider that my points can all be applied to health as well. If you cycle, but fill up on pizza and candy daily, are you (was I?) really improving your health?..

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  20. As noted in chapter 8 of Energy and Equity by Ivan Illich (http://www.clevercycles.com/energy_and_equity/):

    "Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses 5 times less energy in the process."

    This means, for one, that the bicycle is an extremely energy efficient means of travel, as humans are already one of the most energy efficient walkers on the planet, but also that riding a bicycle, you have to work about 5 times as hard or go 5 times as far to burn the same number of calories as you would walking.

    I've found, as a man, I lost a bit of weight when I first started riding regularly (going from a bus rider, primarily), but since then, I have pretty much stayed even. I ride for almost all of my trips in the city, but I don't push myself hard most of the time, and I don't generally hurry to get places, I ride pretty casually. It's enough exercise to wake me up in the morning, to make me feel a bit more energized in general, but mostly I do it because it's quicker and more enjoyable than riding a bus or (for me) driving.

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  21. In saying that I think people focus way too much on weight, I didn't mean to suggest that it was stupid or silly for women to worry about their weight, simply that our culture puts way too much emphasis on that, causing them to have much extra reason to worry (social pressure) than they would already have. I think women in general tend to be more socially inclined as well, and so are probably more likely to be effected by social pressure (correct me if you disagree, this is just from my own observation, I'd be happy to be set straight if I'm wrong) :)

    It's definitely a major problem in our society, and I think a lot of things are kind of sold as weight loss solutions or health solutions that prey on that feeling of inadequacy and really do nothing to further your health. In general, I feel like American society does a great job of making people feel inadequate and guilty in order to sell products.

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  22. Portlandize - from the point of view of psychology and neuroscience, women, *on average*, are definitely more socially oriented than men in their behaviour, preferences, and neurological processes - so I agree with you there. It actually never occurred to me to connect that to why women tend to struggle more with weight, but of course it makes perfect sense.

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  23. ". . .in our culture it often is."

    Jesus Christ I am so tired of the damage Calvinism (often unrecognized as such) has done to our culture. You have a body, it isn't obscene or corrupt. Get used to the idea and get on with life.

    "If you cycle, but fill up on pizza . . ."

    I have no idea why pizza has become so maligned. It is one of the premiere prepared foods. It exists in virtually every culture in various forms under various names (burritos and sandwiches are basically just pizzas you can stick in your pocket "for latter") and has been revered for millennia.

    I think it has a lot to do with cultural bigotry (viewed as Italian and Catholic, both once bad things to be in America) and the fact that it is one of the original over the counter "fast" foods that allowed teenagers to fail to come home to mother.

    ". . .and candy . . ."

    Ahhhh! But if you cross out "candy" and write in "energy" it becomes good for you. Right?

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  24. I'm so glad you tackled this topic! When I started cycling last summer I thought the pounds would just melt away - in fact several of the bike shop employees who were trying to sell me bikes told me so! Well it didn't happen - though I do feel stronger and generally more fit. I think it's important to remember that everyone's body is different. It does indeed seem that for some people cycling is a magic bullet that helps them keep their weight in check but for so many more of us it's not that easy.

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  25. ". . . it's important to remember that everyone's body is different."

    On the other hand it's important to remember that while every snowflake is different, no snowflake is a grain of sand.

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  26. As an interesting counter-example to our culture: a friend of ours was telling us a story from her time in Africa, where "having some meat on your bones", so to speak, was an indicator of prosperity, because you could afford to eat more than you needed to stay alive, and the women she was staying with wanted to send her away heavier than when she came, because it would show they honored her and took good care of her.

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  27. ". . ."having some meat on your bones", so to speak, was an indicator of prosperity. . ."

    "Zero calorie food": the indicator that our culture has crossed the tipping point from mere decadence into insanity.

    Can you imagine people demanding an automobile fuel that costs twice as much that's guaranteed to make your car not go?

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  28. kfg - Pizza has carbs and is soaked in oil. And that's just not sexy (get with the program, will you!).

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  29. Velouria: You are not, by any chance, referring to my proprietary compound of anti-lethargy amylum polysaccharide* and immune system booster omega-3 fatty acids**; are you?


    * Produced in my Green chemical manufacturing plant by using solar power to extract atmospheric carbon and bond it (a quantum process) with oxygenated hydrogen chains (UltraDooper-Water (tm)).

    **Naturally derived from vegan friendly Mediterranean oleaceae.

    Warning; may be habit forming.

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  30. When I raced--and later, when I trained aggressively even though I didn't race-- I was about as thin as I could be. At one point, my doctor said I simply couldn't lose any more weight without doing damage to my body. I paid no attention at all to my diet: I was averaging fifty or more miles a day.

    And, I must add this: I was male, with a normal testosterone count for that gender, in those days.

    Then, for three years, my mileage dropped precipitously,for a number of reasons. During that time, I began to take hormones. I gained about 25 pounds. After about two years on hormones, I was riding a pretty fair number of miles, rather aggressively. I lost a few pounds. I lost most of the subsequent year to an injury, and returned to riding almost as much as I did in the year before the injury. My weight remained about the same through all of it.

    After my surgery in July of 2009, I lost about ten pounds and kept them off for about four months because I had so little appetite (which is very unusual for me). I rode my bike a few times in November (only half an hour each time) and lost another couple of pounds. Now I've gained them back, and five more, since Thanksgiving: my appetite seemed to return with the holidays. I hope to ride more regularly as the weather improves.

    I mention all of this because I wonder how much any future weight loss or gain will have to do with how much I'm riding, and how much will have to do with hormones. I've long heard women complain about how difficult it is to lose weight. I think it may be hormonal: I believe that estrogen slows down the metabolism. At least, it seems to have slowed mine down.

    Then again, I was younger in my racing and hard training days. I'm 51 (I know, a lady isn't supposed to reveal her age.) and I know that no matter what I did, I probably wouldn't be as thin or in the kind of physical condition I was in back in the day. On the other hand, I'm happier now than I was in those days. I don't mind that trade-off at all!

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  31. Wow, hasn't this post generated a lot of comments in a very small time!? I'll add my five cents' worth.

    I was hoping that by taking up cycling again I could lose some weight. I have... combined with more sensible eating habits. Unless you train hard and keep an eagle eye on your portions you won't lose weight dramatically. You may gain muscle, and strength, which is important particularly for those like ...er... me who are approaching a more... certain age. Gaining muscle may mean the scale doesn't move, but your body is certainly in better shape.

    I have lost weight combining cycling with better portion control and admittedly less carbs (none after 3pm). I lost 5 kg or 11 lbs without too much effort about six months ago and have kept that off. I should be diligent and try harder as I have another 6kg to lose ideally. However I make very nice home-made cookies which go nicely with a coffee around 11am -!! (Oh, and a square or two of dark chocolate after dinner with a glass of wine doesn't go astray.)

    But I'm a recreational cyclist. I have my 30 minute regular ride with a couple of heartrate hills. When the weather is cooler (I'm in an Australian summer at the moment and it's a hell of humidity and high temperatures) my husband and I go for longer rides at the weekends as well, and when we do those regularly I feel a difference and see a difference. As Velouria is having trouble keeping up cycling in winter, I'm having the same trouble in summer; however it doesn't snow in my winter, it's like a Boston spring or autumn and you can cycle to your heart's content. Can't wait till it cools down and we can get more active.

    Weight loss or not, what I've noticed since I started cycling again last year is that I have more stamina and stronger muscles, particularly in the lower body. It's been a good regular cardio workout. This, overall, is probably more important than weight loss in the long term.

    I concur that it's hard, particularly in chilly weather, to forego the comfort foods, the pizza and ice cream. Drinking water helps to fill you up, that's for sure. If it's too cold for chilled or tap-temperature water, try it warm with some lemon in it, or go for the herbal teas.

    Above all, there are body types and body types. Some people, like hourglass-shape me, will never have a boyish figure the envy of a 1920s flapper. You can, however, get fit without being supermodel slender. And fit is healthy, whatever weight you are.

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  32. I recall reading a little while ago, that the average person in their *FIRST* year of cycling can lose 'up to' 22 pounds.

    I've always been somewhat fit and never overweight, however when I started to commute by bike at 16, in about a year or so I lost a considerable amount of weight. I'm not sure if biking had much to do with it or not. I did also start to eat healthier around the same time.

    However now, I can not put on a single pound. I could very well eat 30lbs of food in a day and I wouldn't so much as put on a single pound.

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  33. Oh one point I forgot to make irt weight and exercise and how it being fit and strong does not mean one is thin is this: In triathlons there are some categories. One is first timer and another is Clydsdale which I learned refers to people who are over a 200 pounds ( I think 200 lbs is the weight ). And let me tell you I got passed AND chided by a woman who was likely 200 pounds. ( I was walking and she was running and she said " There's no walking in a race!!" Of course I began to run again. )

    anyway just further adding to the point that it's all complicated.

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  34. Sigh...I was a fat baby and it went on from there. Up/down, up/down. I always rode a bike because I loved it. During club cycling days with centuries, I became obsessive and began training like a professional athlete 4 - 6 hours a day, never less than 35 miles a day and usually way more, weight training, swimming, running, hiking, all of it. I became a personal trainer and spin instructor. Somewhere in the middle I had a back injury, but kept going, though with obviously less intensity. Time passes.....now, as an old, fat bitch with a bad attitude, I love cycling more than ever because it is the only time I can move my body fast and it feels really, really good. I still even like climbing hills, though the results are pathetic. I do my shipping and some errands by bike, but the most miles are purely recreational and I find no matter how hard or fast I ride, and I live in a hilly area, I do not EVER change my look by riding and lately it does not seem like eating has much of an effect either. I am now at around 20 miles a day (less in winter) and my body wants to hold onto every ounce. The body is tricky and will outsmart you every time, so do not give it a chance to figure out what you are doing. Perhaps I need to try bark and not the chocolate type? Women do have a very different experience from men with the weight/body issue, so don't even try to compare results, it will drive you crazy. Get out there and live it up, ride however you like and enjoy your body and the ability to ride and fly free down those hills! It's the best!

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  35. I have been reading a lot lately about the effects that high fructose corn syrup have on our ability to control weight. It is everywhere and so difficult to eliminate.

    I have to confess that I do gain weight in the winter as well and keeping the diet in control to match the activity is most challenging.

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  36. Some true words in that. I certainly can't claim that I lost weight through cycling as I was always rather thin. However, I certainly felt that I got more muscles, eat more "energy food" and feel fitter generally. There have been longer times when I didn't cycle myself, but then I did other types of "exercise" instead (running, or just walking a lot).

    To sum it up: I think, cycling as a normal mode of transport doesn't make one thin, but keeps one fit and healthy on the long run. Weight can only be lost if additional cycling (sporty style, like road or mountain biking) is done on a regular basis.

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  37. i havent eally gained any weight but is not like ive lost weight because of cycling. I admint some of my grilfirends dont like to hear that i dont "go to the gym" or have a strict dies, im like -du-h, I ride my bike everyday-

    I still fit into clothes from 10 yrs ago, so cycling does do good ;)
    cheers

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  38. Meli - ah but you live in California where there is no winter season... No fair!

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  39. Wow, this post really touched a nerve! Guess it goes to show how weight-conscious our culture really is.

    I dropped 20 pounds last year, and while biking wasn't the only workout method I used to do it, it was THE form of exercise that made me want to get out and move my body. The feeling of flying, the joy of using my body, and the simplicity of the whole process were pure magic to me. I forgot that I was exercising.

    The whole experience was so transformative for me that I started a blog dedicated to helping others get in touch with that powerful place.

    Come visit!
    http://www.bike-bliss.com/

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  40. Fantastic, interesting conversation here. I often use cycling as an excuse to eat donuts, so that's not healthy :) But daily cycling has done more than anything, including feminist theory and yoga, to improve my body image. I respect my body more as a functioning machine that gets me around and I am free from an obsessive "workout routine." The summer before I started bike commuting, I spent an hour and a half 5 days a week doing a Denise Austin boot camp DVD. In hindsight, that was ridiculous. Cycling is not a complete solution, but it's a great part of an overall healthy, sane and active lifestyle.

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  41. v, i might be the girl who is of a certain age that eats when i am hungry, does not worry so much about weight or is obsessed with the the amount and size of what she is eating!

    i have lost weight in the past 2.5 years(when my bike really became a part of my daily life) but it has been a slow process and something i was not trying for. the more i rode the better i felt the more i respected myself/body.

    that being said i do not eat meat. i find myself struggling to get enough protein in my diet so i tend to go for "healthier" options to satisfy my larger appetite.
    another thing is that i am not a foodie, i would rather ride to a show and listen to good music, drink three PBRs (three is my limit when on bike), then go try a new cafe or restaurant any day!

    and well yes the winter does change my body, but i think it is more that the muscles become "softer" so it looks like weight gain. but really once back on your bike for a week those soft muscles will firm up again and be feeling great.

    part of riding daily is how great you feel physically and emotionally, in my opinion that is what is hardest about the winter months. my suggestion is to try yoga a couple of times a week and subsititute the ice cream with a fruit smoothie.

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  42. interesting post... I am petite and my weight has not changed since I was about 16 (I am 27), I am just below my BMI but that is just the way I am. People consider me 'thin' thinking I have reached the moon, but I have other health issues that still bother me... a buggered knee and a kidney that kicks up a fuss every once and a while.

    Cycling make me happy and yes tones me up... flabby skin happens to everyone indeed... cycling makes my heart stronger, my blood clean (burns sugars etc)... cycling gives me freedom to go where I want so long as the willpower takes me... cycling makes me laugh because I get places faster than cars that are stuck in traffic jams eheh!

    it is such such a shame that a lot of things for us women (and perhaps men) come down to weight... isn't it?! Thin doesn't make you happy, cycling yes :) and in my opinion cycling makes you healthy both physically and mentally...

    cycle love ♥

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  43. I think this is a great topic to bring up. Its important to (esp. for women, being one myself) to be open about the motivation for exercise, whatever form it comes it (in this case city cycling). Alot of serious body image/weight issues can be covered with exercise. Especially with the whole promotion of city cycling. But putting it as something that will make you skinnier is wrong as it totally reinforces the messed up body image ideals women (and men) have to deal with.
    While cycling definently makes you healthier and you can loose weight, its more of a maintenence exercise. The media, this society needs to be honest that no one can loose more weight than their body wants to without resorting to drastic measures.

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  44. As is normal with a thread like this there is a lot of discussion about weight loss, but what everybody is really concerned with is fat loss. In my earlier days as an athlete and something of a "gym rat," I picked up a few simple tips that most people can benefit from. What I refer to as "appearance athletes," bodybuilders and fitness models especially, are better at controlling fat than anybody. Although they resort to extreme last minute diets before a contest or photo shoot, their normal diet focuses on a food profile that is 50% protein, 25% carbs and 25% fat, they eat frequently and drink a lot of water. I have found that simply keeping those guidelines in mind over the years has made it relatively easy for me to control my fat without resorting to "dieting."
    Don't discount the value of cycling in fat loss. Riding at 12 miles an hour, an adult uses 500 calories every hour (72 miles a week equals a pound of fat more or less). Obviously, substituting the bike for the car a few times a week will help burn up that excess flab, as long as you don't replace it with crappy food. It's still the best way I have found over the years to work some vigorous aerobic activity into my day without spending boring hours in the gym on a treadmill.
    Now, since I am approaching 60, I am glad it's a habit I've maintained over the years. My high school and college team and classmates look at my facebook photo and are accusing me of taking steroids and having pec implants. Can't wait for the next reunion.

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  45. I really enjoyed this post of yours, it was well written, and nailed down, what I've always known to be true, but kept on kidding myself anyway. 5 years ago I started cycling at the age of 54, I was 17 stone 6 pounds, (oops !), you probably deal in pounds, i.e., 244 pounds. What the clinicians call extremely obese. I built myself up to a 40 mile round trip commute, at leat 4 days a week, and along with leisure rides, averaged 180 miles per week. My weight came down to 16 stone dead, that's 224 pounds. It's stayed static now for 2 years, as you rightly say, cycling makes one ravenous, and quite simply my food intake got bigger than ever, but I felt, and still feel fantastic, even though I'm still considered clinically obese. Now at 59 I feel strong, powerful, love to cycle but am always HUNGRY !! If one goes by the health charts, my ideal weight should be, at most, 11 stone 4 pounds i.e., 158 pounds ! So I'm 4 stone 10 pounds, or 66 pounds overweight, how on earth do I lose that ? I know I need to eat less, but it's going to be a mammoth struggle, if indeed I can get started. Any ideas ?

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    1. Get a Trikke and stick with it for at least 4 months. Once you master the movement, it becomes so much fun you want to do it. Exercises more muscles than cycling.

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  46. Great topic. In all honesty, I ride my bike because it's fun and to improve my appearance I run. My liesurely daily commute only amounts to 6km round trip, so I consider it a mental health exercise more than a physical one.

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  47. Thanks again for posting about your experiences; it is very interesting and refreshing to read everyone's story.

    Marc - I agree with you exactly. I was on a lower-carb diet for years due to health reasons and as long as I did this my weight was very stable. I have read the "500 cal at 12mph for an hour" statistic before, but I have also heard that this is a considerable overestimation. It's confusing!

    dc - That is good to hear that yo are "that girl". You know, I am not a "foodie" either - in the sense that I like some foods very much, but do not fetishize food and do not devote a significant part of my budget to restaurant-going. (This is in fact partly responsible for my being able to afford bikes and other cool things.) For me, the weight/fitness thing can be a bit frustrating, because I have health problems that effect it, and I am always stressed out. As a result my weight fluctuates, whereas I just want it to stay still so that I don't need to rethink my clothes every couple of months!

    welshcyclist - I lived in the UK for 4 years, so I can think in stones too : ) If you are comfortable and feel strong, maybe there is no need to change. But if you've plateaued and want to keep losing weight, the only way I know is "low carb". It's gotten a bad rep lately, because, as with everything, people tend to take it too far. But when done properly it works wonders. Interestingly, Rivendell has dedicated articles to this in the last 2 Rivendell Readers, so perhaps take a look? (They are free to download on their site).

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  48. Cheers Velouria, fantastic name, where did that come from? I'll check out Rivendell.

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  49. Cycling makes me feel great and I think it contributed to my having regained my lost tone and the 50 (50!) pounds I gained during my pregnancy. I can't really isolate it because these other things also helped: breastfeeding, genetics, real food in normal amounts, no industrial food from boxes, nothing low fat or engineered to be something it isn't, chasing and carrying and wearing a baby, we almost always cook at home and the fact that I was small before my pregnancy.

    For me to lose weight vigorous exercise doesn't make as much of a difference as diet (really it just makes me hungrier) and that what food I eat and in what amount makes the biggest difference of all. I echo Velouria and would say to try limiting your carbohydrates (or, really, just sugar and refined grains). These are not things we're meant to eat a ton of anyway. My other advice is cook for yourself and eat really slowly. Eating really slowly helps immeasurably to give you a real sense of when you're full. Most people eat way beyond that point and don't even have a sense of how little food they actually require for their metabolic needs. Good luck!

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  50. Great post. I hope to have time to read all the interesting comments later. This is something that's been on my mind for the past year or so -- when I first started cycling I did lose weight, but gained it back and more around the end of last year, although some of that is muscle. I think it is because I got healthier, ironically, and the short rides weren't pushing me as hard cardiovascularly anymore. Overall I don't mind, since some of it is muscle and heavier or not, I am in much better shape than I was without cycling. But it's definitely not guaranteed weight loss.

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  51. My experience with biking (commuting AND exercise ) is that yes, I do get really hungry. Yes, I can eat an entire pizza by myself when I am really hungry. If I listen to my body and it's cravings though, when I'm really active, I crave foods that are GOOD for me. Vegetables, raw fruits, lean meats, olive oil, nuts, grains, balanced macronutrients. Skiing is much harder, because I crave high calorie foods after exerting myself in the cold (read: brownies, bacon, and melted cheese). Biking helped keep me sane during emotional periods, where every steep hill represented that no-good-ex-boyfriend, and long stretches of sunny open road were an outlet for joyous energy that made me too flighty to hold a conversation with. I never have lost more than 5 pounds biking or skiing or anything (thanks to the yum-food-factor), but I know I'm more toned, more fit, more energetic, more vibrant, and I'm okay with that.

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  52. Tip from my favorite spin teacher/bike racer:
    If you really want the pounds to start melting off, follow a hard workout immediately with at least an hour of "recovery" riding. I think it's called Zone 1, perceived exertion 4 out of 10, we used our heart rate <= 180-age. It feels like when you're doing chores like raking, when your heart rate is elevated, your breath just barely is, and you feel hot like you're working without feeling like you're working hard. Anyway, she says it lengthens the benefits of the strenuous workout, doesn't really get you that tired or hungry, and that level and order really helps with weight. I haven't tried it with any sort of dedication, it does not come with a guarantee, but it may be something worth trying if you've plateaued and want more weight loss out of cycling (welshcyclist)?

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  53. I'm not sure I can add much more to this discussion other than the observation that I've been at my most unhealthy when I've been at my lightest. Stomach bugs are a very effective (but not recommended) way to loose weight and having kids seems to be a good way to guarantee to get a bout of gastric 'flu once a year!

    Weight is a very crude measurement, as fat is much lighter than muscle. I've always found the best measure is whether or not you can get into your jeans! Seriously, this method measures all the critical bits, bum, thighs and tummy. The craving for more (and comfort food at that) seems to be a regular thing in winter and my weight and appetite fluctuate with the seasons - I don't see that as a problem as it is fairly minor so long as I don't pig out on chocolate and eat too much cheese! Eating unprocessed "real" food, the dull stuff like fruit and veg is unfortunately the only answer and the other stuff has to be treated with caution whether you exercise or not.

    Have I lost weight through cycling? - no, but at least getting into my jeans isn't a problem.

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  54. The body doesn't know how to process refined flour and refined sugar. Probably about half of the calories from sugar manage to end up in your fat cells before the cells which need replenishment can even get to them. Sugar causes you to overeat because your body wants you to keep eating until it gets the nourishment that it needs, including vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients, which are devoid in processed foods. Sugar is not a comfort food, it's an addictive food, as anyone who goes cold turkey on it can tell you - you'll have insatiable cravings for it all day long because of the havoc that sugar plays with the release of dopamine in the brain.

    Attempting to lose weight without improving the quality of your food (limit sugar, grains and vegetable oils and other omega-6 foods) by trying to cut back on the volume of food while still eating crap that makes you malnourished will only result in the thyroid downregulating it's hormones, and cause your body to run at a lower metabolism to compensate in an attempt to preserve what little nutrients are still left in the body.

    Eat real food. Native cultures in warmer, south pacific climates regularly leave fruit and vegetables out to rot, food shortage is unheard of, they lead fairly sedentary lives, yet there is not a single one of them which isn't lean. Excess body fat is simply an outward symptom of metabolic derangement and malnourishment.

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  55. Great Post!!! and so very relevant to my life at the moment too.

    I'm overweight and though I'm now using cycling as part of my exercise routine I'm alternating with walking on the treadmill and eating much healthier..

    I try and get in either 45-60 minutes of biking or walking/running on the treadmill 6 days a week

    I have noticed since I've increased my cycling I have become more ravenous but I'm being careful to make careful choices on what I have, have a smaller amount, wait 30 minutes and if I'm still hungry have a bit more.

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  56. Last year I began riding a great amount. I have a 15 mile commute to work and have the ability to shower when there (company provided showers). By the middle of the summer I was riding around 200 miles per week and by fall had increased to over 300 per week. I dropped over 50lbs (finally below 200lbs). The winter was not easy - the amount of food I had become accustomed to eating was ghastly. By the end of winter I had put on half of the weight I had lost. This year I have been working on my diet along with cycling - a big week for me is 100 miles.
    -kmo

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  57. It's funny how people think you are an athlete because you bike everywhere! Cycling builds muscle and for women the core is the hips so women end up getting thunder thighs. I find it's helpful to have another form of excercise especially during the winter if you do not ride much be it yoga, swimming, pilates or weight training or whatever because I have been cycling year round for years and found that if you bike every day everywhere your body becomes so used to it that it no longer views it as hard work. cycling is great cardio, but your body has become a super efficient speed machine, so it needs another regime to tone the body etc if that is a desired goal. When I had time/energy I swam, did yoga, some physio at the gym on top of biking all over all the time and I was definitely more fit than from just riding. Also as you have discovered riding fast on road bikes will change your body more than if you ride a commuter or pretty mixte bike. Eating properly is important. Admittedly you can get away with eating naughty things in moderation.
    Another issue for women is that there are hormone issues, thyroid issues etc that don't really happen to men, but will happen regardless of your 20 mile daily ride. My husband is super skinny and rides all the time, doesn't get super big thighs, but he is also vegan and eats like no fat. Although people talk about having huge appetites from cycling we found that we actually eat less than if we didn't cycle, but have to eat more often.

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  58. Oh I forgot to mention that having been biking full time year round since I was in my teens and I can still fit into clothes I have had for years and years regardless of seasonal weight gain/loss. I had a car for three years and I gained quite a bit of weight! I wasn't riding very much or getting other excercise because I was working all the time.
    So, if you've been biking for years and a bit disheartened because of some weight gain, remember how healthy and fit you are REGARDLESS of appearances.

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  59. Cycling and weight loss only go hand in hand if you control for the other factors, and that is not always simple. Yes, definitely I agree with your statement about this one. Like eating the right food habit is another factor to balance a healthy lifestyle.

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  60. With time a even a short distance commuter, say 20mins dictance in somewhat hilly terrain, will build muscle mass that will make it alot easier for him or her, to control overweight. However, one must accept that its impossible to build muscle mass and lose body fat at the same time, this will be possible only for a short period. After this the body will, as most know i think, start consuming muscle mass. Be patient, and eat reasonable well, dont pig out like a maniac but never feel starved! Forget about "diets", eat meat (or eqivalents), and plenty of carbohydrates. Learn what types of fats are good for you, they are needed for muscle building, and even weight loss.

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  61. Yes, and not only with cycling, with any exercise form. You need to watch what you put in if you want to loose weight, as the more strenuous the exercise, the more ravenous you will be.

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  62. Agreed. Cycling alone will not do the trick. It's a combination of things but it will help you get there.

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  63. Great post, albeit I'm arriving a little late. When I first started regular bike commuting, I lost 20 lbs just like that. I have much further to go but I never lost any more after that. I actually ride more now (have been car-free for 3 years and ride everywhere) but just like with any exercise, your body gets used to it. In addition, when you do it all the time, you're not getting your heart rate up like you used to when you were starting out. For me, riding 10 miles a day just keeps my bum in gear, but does nothing to burn extra calories anymore. So here I am, going back to the gym in addition to commuting. Bummer but it's true!

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  64. As a fat cyclist, I think I can hopefully shed some light on this topic! I started commuting by bike about a year and a half ago. When I started, I weighed roughly 280lbs. I got into it, not really for exercise purposes, but because I moved to a city where parking prices and the like are outrageously expensive.

    I ride roughly 6 or 7 miles a day. I have lost a little weight. I don't own a scale, but I've gone down about two pants sizes, so I figure I'm probably down about 20-30lbs from last year.

    However, while weightloss has not been huge and really wasn't even my goal, I have noticed huge changes in my body. I have rock hard legs now. I FEEL stronger. I have a lot more endurance and stamina now for things like hiking. On a recent vacation with some friends who are much "thinner" than me (but don't really exercise), they were the ones who got tired of all the walking.

    My point? Sure, the weight isn't going to "fall off", but weight is only one part of fitness. I feel like I'm in the best shape of my adult life, thanks to cycling. I've weighed less in my adult life than I do now, but yet still would get tired doing things that now.. are a breeze thanks to cycling. My other point? No matter what weight you are, if you want to hop on a bike, go for it! I love that other fellow fat people see me on a bike and think, "Hey, if she can do it, I can probably do that!"

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  65. I ride, I run, I walk a lot and usually carry one boy around a decent amount every day. What matters most is treats. Stay away and you do ok. And figure out what to do once cycling fades in inclement weather.

    I don't think it is all about losing weight but redistributing weight and changing shape but then I am a guy. Don't go for pounds but make yourself look and feel like what you want to look and feel like, given your personal health constraints. And run, if you can, in the winter. In addition to running 400 miles in the last 5 months, I have been on my bike spinning in the basement for a half hour about 30 times (I only started this practice on Super Bowl sunday but will do it year round), and rode about 150 miles on my bikes outside. With two kids, I am counting my blessings. I rode a decent amount this year with one of the boys and 2/3 of my running miles saw me pushing one or two of the boys.

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  66. Hello,
    Really enjoy everyone's comments on this post. I am a man who cycled roughly 4 to 5000 mileas a year and got down to 175. I am still a pretty big guy and that will never change. I am 6 ft 1" and my shoulders are going to be one of the widest in the room no matter where I am. I started riding to work at around 250 lbs. to just loose weight, but then I really enjoyed riding (way too much). I just started feeling antsy if I wasn't riding and outdoors doing some exploring. As my riding increased and I started developing goals for myself I found through trial and error that eating more than you think is the best tool you have to loose weight. OK. OK. don't scoff yet!. I am already a big guy. Played linebacker in football and everyone has never shied away from asking me to help them move all of their belongings from dwelling to dwelling. When I got really into riding I thought that I had to make it my job to be able to climb hills because I wasn't built for it. Biggest mistake ever. I ate like a hummingbird and attacked every hill I encountered. What happened was I became a two headed monster. I cycled 12 hours a week and only consumed 2500 cal a day. Sounds great right! In fact I was riding 6 days a week, and 4 of those days were pretty intense. my intake should have been much higher to sustain what I was trying to do. Hills did get much much easier though:) BUT I was always starving and going into ravage mode on my days off. If it wasn't bolted to the floor chances are It was gone within seconds of my last ride for the week. Thing is I can physically never be a great climber. I realize that now. My upper body will always be bigger than my lower body and I can in no way ever achieve the praying mantis-esque physic needed to dart up mountains with ease. At 175 I was a 44 jacket and 31 waste. I was a cartoon. So with that being said, I had some kids and gained everything back super fast. I didn't touch a dessert for two years at one point now I devour whole bakerys in one sitting. Ok..Ok...ranting now so sorry:)

    Thing is, I realized there are Many types of diets for the Many types of cycling. I am great at spring classic style rides. Wind, potholes, rolling hills drunk French people screaming poetic insults at you. That is what I am built for. So now that I know this and am back on my journey with cycling and down towards 175 again, it is easier. STILL challenging but easier. I eat more protein than other cyclists I know. I drink more beer too.

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  67. Sorry, in conclussion. You have to find your balance for your body type. And also, can't stop riding in the winter:) Sorry. If even just to work. You have to do it or you won't keep making leaps and bounds with your cycling. Thanks

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  68. Found this blog. Great site. I, too, like others here have the same problem. I burn 7-10K cal per week and have gone up 20 lbs. Heart rate, down, blood pressure down, dr took me off heart meds for irregular heart beat, still prediabetic. Still put on wt. It's a vicious cycle.

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