Bicycling booty

There’s something I’ve been meaning to post about here for some time: The “riding makes you thin!” meme. So many times I see it mentioned on bike blogs that so and so can eat whatever they want because they bike.

my homemade macarons

It is true for some people, I’m sure. But I have actually had the opposite experience, and I feel like I can’t be the only one. When I first started cycling in April 2008, I lost a few pounds. Then, as my cardiovascular fitness improved and my commute was no longer a real workout, that weight came back — with a little bit extra, probably due to a combo of increased muscle mass, age-related metabolism slowdown, and the fact that cycling makes me hungry. On someone who is 5’2″ (optimistically!) even a small amount can be noticeable.

That said, bicycling has made other, more important changes in my body. I can run (well, OK, jog) 3+ miles now without being seriously sore/tired the next day, when previously one mile on the treadmill made me feel like dying. My ride to work takes a couple minutes less than it did 3 years ago, and I can ride across town without breaking a sweat (figuratively; this is Tennessee!). I have cycled 30 miles in a day without my legs being sore. It is seriously awesome.

In some ways it it frustrating to feel so healthy and fit, and yet not be the Cosmo-approved width (at least, I assume I’m not—I gave up reading Cosmo at least 5 years ago). But I am short with a medium/muscular build, my legs especially. Cycling doesn’t do a lot to work against nature in that area. Maybe if I gave up sweets and alcohol (not gonna happen), I could be back to the weight I was when I was 23. But the fact is, cycling is a rather efficient form of exercise. You just don’t burn that many calories riding 30-40 minutes a day at a moderate pace, like I do.

In short, I can’t promise you that riding your bike means being able to eat an unlimited amount of cupcakes, or croissants or whatever your treat of choice might be. It might even make your butt bigger. It is more likely to give you T-Rex arms than Michelle Obama arms (tm Elisa!).

But I can promise you that it will give you more energy, build your stamina and get your heart in better shape. And oh yeah, it’s fun. Most days, that’s enough of a bargain for me.

What has your experience with cycling and weight been?

{ Dottie’s take on bicycling and self-esteem is here. }

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57 thoughts on “Bicycling booty

  1. steve_a_dfw says:

    The same as you – or maybe a bit worse.

  2. G.E. says:

    My first thought for you specifically, Trisha, is that you have a gorgeous little body anyway… why would you want to change it? You look fit, strong, muscular, and we are not all built as waifs (that’s just the reality of genetics). I would be thrilled to trade you any day (unfortunately though, you’d be getting the raw end of that deal)! :O)

    Secondly, I completely agree with you (on all points) – cycling has not caused me to lose weight, unless I very purposefully set out to do longer rides (over 20 miles) on a given ride, and only then in combination with some other form of exercise. However, I have noticed over time an extreme improvement in cardiovascular capabilities, and I simply feel better, and I think that is far more important than anything.

    • Trisha says:

      I guess we all have something about ourselves we’d like to change! Luckily other people are not as hard on us as we are on ourselves. :) And yes, the cardio benefits are really wonderful. They’ve made other forms of exercise less painful for me. I never would have been able to complete a 10K without training if I hadn’t started cycling.

  3. [...] here: Bicycling booty « Let's Go Ride a Bike – life on two wheels: simple … This entry was posted in Blog Search and tagged back, bit, longer, makes, meme, related, riding, [...]

  4. awc says:

    You are most definitely not alone. I have been a bike commuter in Chicago for about 15 years. While my commutes varied over those years from 14 miles a day to 4 and I would ride to things all summer long so I never really thought of it as exercise, mostly cause I wasn’t trying to break a sweat, albeit, running late was my forte so sweat was inevitable. Any way, it wasn’t until I started riding for 30, 40, 70 miles in a day and commuting all year round that I started to get a little frustrated with minimal weight change.
    I’m on the short end 5’4″ and am built like I should be pulling an ox cart not sporting the latest spandex. I could not for the life of me find a padded short for the long rides that was anywhere near comfortable to wear. I would get looks like I was lying when I said I rode that much. But I started to understand it, my body was just that efficient. I had been riding for so long that my cardiovascular system wasn’t phased. My muscles did get stronger and my energy improved from the longer rides, but the weight and inches didn’t budge (enough). So like you, I started running (which honestly was unfathomable for me to ever consider) and that seemed to do the trick. Just needed to throw the body a curve ball I guess.
    I still love to and do bike everyday, unfortunately, for me, it isn’t my wonder exercise, just my staple. It hasn’t made me skinny but it has made me stronger and more independent. I wouldn’t change for the world.

  5. Dominique says:

    I haven’t lost any “weight” cycling, but I do look a bit thinner (size 8 or 10 instead of 12).
    BUT, all the weight that melted off my frame has turned into huge muscular legs.
    I look like a speed skater..
    This may be from being in speed skiing sports when I was younger, which built up my big legs and then promptly turned into jiggily legs!

  6. Brandy says:

    Like everyone who has commented thus far, I can totally relate. While I have definitely lost some size, I’ve actually gained weight, especially after doing a tour from Nashville to Durham and back, but it was mostly muscle weight, though there was admittedly some from being hungry more often.

    I think it was especially annoying when I went to my doctor and they pointed out that I am overweight according to BMI standards, especially since my body fat levels are quite within the healthy/low range!

    • Dominique says:

      I’m glad my doctors don’t use BMI measurements…those are a bunch of manure!
      Pretty sure my chest area would skew the results to morbidley obese… How is it as a size 8 or 10 (5’3″) I am in the “obese” category? I have stomach definition!
      Scales can only go so far, and after that comes common sense.

  7. In the last year and a half I’ve lost 85 pounds. When I hit a goal weight last July I bought myself a new bike. My previous one had been bought hasitly from a shop I wouldn’t step foot in anymore as it was poorly sized for me and not the right type of bike for my type of riding. I wouldn’t credit the biking with my weight loss as I’ve also been weight training, sometimes doing water aerobics, yoga, walking/jogging etc. But, the one thing I found late last summer was that cycling on top of my usual workout routine was putting my body into starvation mode which meant putting on weight and feeling run down. I wasn’t eating back enough of my cycling calories (and other exercise). At that time I was still over 200 pounds and averaging 12-14 mph and about 16 miles per day most of the time with a really good climb home. Now that the fires are under control and we can breathe well again I’ve been cycling more and all of a sudden my weight is stalled or even climbing a tiny bit again. It is certainly frustrating.

  8. Yep, yep, and yep. That meme bugs the everloving crap out of me. Granted, I have gotten ~firmer~ in places and that has adjusted what my body looks like and how clothing fits but, like you, after an initial drop in weight, I started packing on the muscle and the pounds. I do like being able to climb several flights of stairs without gasping for breath, though.

  9. aem2 says:

    I’ve found that my daily cycling has done nothing much except keep me at maintenance weight and build up my quads, although I do notice a bit of a change over the winter if it’s too snowy to bike. However, it’s still giving me my 40 minutes a day of exercise. I call that good.

  10. Meghan Naxer says:

    Definitely the same experience here! When I first started biking in July 11, I could barely go a mile, but now I can bike anywhere in town no problem and am starting to do 30-40 mile rides here and there. I am planning on setting a goal of 45 miles a week to build up strength and endurance so I can go on even longer rides with my husband and do longer tours. But age, metabolism, and “biker hunger” have not been kind to my waist. Like many of the other commenters, I am embarking on some cross training with running and weight lifting. The main reason? Thanks to biking, I have a new appreciation for my body, what it can do, and how awesome I feel being healthy and fit!

    • LGRAB says:

      Yes, like Dottie wrote about in her “Cycling and Self-Esteem” post, cycling is great for learning to appreciate your body for what it can do and not just what it looks like. A really important thing to keep in mind.

  11. julia says:

    Same experience! Gained weight because i thought i could eat whatever i wanted!

  12. Trisha says:

    Nice to know I’m not alone. This felt kind of personal but I decided to post it in case others had been similarly unable to identify with the typically described experience.

  13. KT says:

    Shh, seriously quiet now, ok? Good.

    I took up “cycling” (rofl <— literally) because my 6 year old was bugging the crap out of me about going bike riding as his elderly Grandfather could no longer keep up with him on a regular basis, coupled with him getting into the school in the village meaning I no longer needed a car to take him several miles to school, a bike trailer was needed as I also have a 2 year old…..

    I had as an aside hope to remove some weight too put on due to giving up smoking… but that seems unlikely int he light of the above and also lots of comments its of even more concern to me that they manage 12 mph plus now I am really laughing so hard my sides ache… my trailer has a top speed of 10 mph and my skills I swear have a top speed of about 5 mph so it seems weight loss could be but a dream I shall monitor and let you know…..

    Perhaps hauling my arse out of hedges whilst stray joggers look on apologising profusely for distracting me could assist in the reducing of the thighs… hmmmm…..

    I am also off to bug the hubby about NEEDING a speed measuring device too now!

  14. Sezgi Uygur says:

    I totally agree with you. I started biking 2 years ago in Rome, (modest inclination) I wasn’t fat but I wasn’t fit either. I became fitter, stronger, firmer and slightly thinner. I don’t understand why people check their weight on a regular basis, I check mine a couple of times a year, it’s always the same, one pound more or less. I visit my parents a couple of times a year for an entire month and I don’t carry my bike, I definitely change size.

    It doesn’t matter how much we weigh, it doesn’t matter what others say what we should look like, getting fit while having fun is what matters.

  15. Mikael Colville-Andersen says:

    The New York Times reported recently about a study that shows that exercise and burned calories is less important than the food we consume. It’s less to do with the “workout” and more to do with the diet. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/opinion/sunday/debunking-the-hunter-gatherer-workout.html?_r=3

    Just to chuck it out there…

    • LGRAB says:

      Yes, as I said, unless you are exercising strenuously (which, when city cycling, you are not) that seems to be the case. Which makes the “cycle so you can have a cupcake” idea even more misleading! Thanks for the backup link.

      • cat-6_commuter says:

        “which, when city cycling, you are not”

        speak for yourself.

        while i enjoy my partners company when we cycle together, i most definitely do not enjoy the slower pace. i am happiest zipping along at 20-30 mph with a painful burn in my leg muscles.

        • Trisha says:

          Zipping is fun, and of course I am basing this on my own experience. But the traffic lights, stop signs, etc., that most people encounter when cycling in the city make the ability to maintain the kind of speed and exertion level that you’re describing the exception rather than the rule.

          • ridonrides says:

            totally agree with trisha here. unless you’re riding with little traffic and hit every light as it turns green, most people are not going that fast. unless your regular commute is on a bike path. even then, i can’t go fast because there are lots of other people on the path during the summer season.

            • cat-6_commuter says:

              “But the traffic lights, stop signs, etc., that most people encounter when cycling in the city make ”

              cycling at a steady pace on an open expanse often exerts less energy than accelerating rapidly from a stop. moreover, terrain determines whether cycling is strenuous
              exercise. many cyclists climb tens or even hundreds of thousands of feet
              each year purely for transportation. my point is merely that transportation cycling can be strenuous exercise — if you want it to be.

    • cat-6_commuter says:

      From the actual study:

      “we examined habitual TEE, PAL, and body composition in hunter-gatherers and Westerners, but did not examine the effects of imposing increased physical activity
      on Westerners. Physical activity has important, positive effects on
      health, and increased physical activity has been shown to play an important role in weight loss and weight-maintenance programs.”

  16. Mikael says:

    The New York Times reported recently about a study that shows that exercise and burned calories is less important than the food we consume. It’s less to do with the “workout” and more to do with the diet. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/opinion/sunday/debunking-the-hunter-gatherer-workout.html?_r=3

    Just to chuck it out there…

  17. EO says:

    Ah, THANK YOU for writing this. I’ve been commuting for 5 years and I am definitely both more fat and more fit than I was when I started. (My calves are amazing, though…)

  18. Malaika says:

    Same. I ride a little over 20 miles a day to and from work, have done 2 century rides (100 miles), and ride anywhere from 5 to 50 miles on the weekends and I have been struggling to lose weight the entire time. Losing weight really is mainly about diet. But riding a bike has brought so much joy and fun to my life that I keep doing it. I also started doing other activities (surfing, hiking, jogging) because I have such a great appreciation for my body and what it can do. Yes, I’d like to be less chubby, but as long as I can ride, who cares!

  19. safetyhelmetsforkids.com says:

    I think nthe overall benefits are what counts! We need to see the benefits we reap from being fit & riding bikes

  20. Sam says:

    Bicycling has made me strong, as in super-woman-strong, but my no means a svelte, lean, mean, bicycling machine. I carry a lot of squishy pokeable fat on me even though I can easily ride 50 miles with no soreness whatsoever. Also age related metabolism has creeped up on me and is the most annoying aspect of getting older. Before, I’d skip beer for 5 days and lose 5 pounds but now I have to skip beer for 2 weeks, run 10 miles, watch what I eat, lift weights and THEN, lost 5 lbs. So aggravating.

  21. Daniel says:

    I’ve been riding 120 miles/week since June, ran 450 miles since last November and lost 10 pounds. More importantly, I redistributed weight, probably lost a lot more than 10 pounds in fat, and am healthier. Size and weight aren’t the things I really worry about, it’s what they sometimes imply, fat and the health of my heart.

    I had been going through a time of little or no exercise because of two small children and their sleep schedules. I did most of the running when the younger boy was getting up early (he usually fell back asleep) and most of the riding after he started sleeping until 7AM, so I could get in 25 miles before he, or his old brother, or my wife woke up.

  22. It’s not all about diet, but it is mostly about diet. I ride 22 miles a day, but lost very little until I gave up my beloved cookies.

    Ok, I mostly gave up cookies…well, for six months anyway.

  23. Body fat follows the 80/20 rule: it’s 20%what you do and 80% what you eat. And if you eat 80% superfoods and 20% favourite things, then you will find that your body drops fat easily and naturally.

    A proper food pyramid is one where the bottom is all green foods, so that the bulk of what you eat comes from vegetables. Add high quality protein and the fats which usually accompany it, and your body will be happy. Sweet tooth? Fruit can be delicious with a really nice yogurt and some honey. If you want to eat a cookie, or drink wine, that’s fine, but don’t eat potatoes with dinner, too. Weight is a function of calories in vs calories out, but it’s not that simple. Refined sugars and grains cause metabolic changes which make it harder to drop fat, so eat them extremely moderately and you will be healthy, happy, and whole.

    Most of us mistake thirst for hunger, too, especially when we’re very active. Drink a pint of water first thing in the morning and wait a bit before you eat anything, and watch how that affects your appetite. Try it for two weeks and then see how your appetite is affected. Many people believe that is a key to curing a number of illnesses. It works for me.

    And about plateauing? Every athlete reaches plateaus, where the workout gets easier. If your commute is no longer challenging, make it harder! Go faster, take a longer route… whatever. Cycling is actually one of the more effective ways of getting slim, because it is a natural form of interval training. Especially if you push yourself.

    If you have been riding a while and you drop a few pounds you will be delighted with what you uncover. Muscle weighs six times more than fat but it takes up much less room. And it’s hot. Ditch the scales in favour of measuring tape.

    It all depends on what you want. If you really want it, nothing will stand in your way… :)

    • Yeah, I don’t think an exercise pep talk / nutrition lecture was the appropriate response to this blog post. What Trisha is getting at here isn’t really “gee I wish I could lose weight and be a socially-constructed-ideal size zero”. I read this post as calling bullshit on both the “riding makes you thin” meme and the “being thin is the same as being healthy” meme. Shaming people about their habits and telling them they must not want it badly enough? Not helpful.

      (Trisha, if I am wrong, know that you are gorgeous just as you are, and to hell with anyone who tries to make you believe otherwise. And, another big me-too here. This fall, I’m adding yoga classes to my routine as a gentle way to strengthen my core and help me get fitter.)

      • LGRAB says:

        No, that’s exactly what I was trying to say. The thin = healthy meme is indeed hard to drop, and as another commentator mentioned, it is not as simple as counting calories for everyone. Being strong and healthy is what matters most, even if that’s hard to remember sometimes, especially for women. Enjoy yoga, Deb!

  24. Rodadas says:

    This may add some insight. I saw a documentary by the BBC a few years ago. They showed several experiments where they explained how your body seems to choose a weight when you are in your teens and sets it as the default weight. Then, it always tends to go to that weight, either regaining pounds when you are slimmer or loosing them pretty fast when you get fatter.

    It also shows how fat cells, once created, can’t be naturally destroyed. So when you are thinner they only empty, but are craving to get filled again.

    This documentary made me realise something: it didn’t matter how much I tried to eat healthy or how hard I cycled, I would always tend to be fat. That’s what happened to me while cycling around the world. At some point my body said “ok, this is all under control”, and after having lost around 30 pounds in 8 months, I got them all back with some extra in just a few weeks :(

    Here’s the documentary if you want to check it out:

    Cheers!

    • LGRAB says:

      Yes, I believe that is true. I read RETHINKING THIN by Gina Kolata a few years ago, which introduces the same idea — it really is more complex than calories in/calories out. Will have to check this out.

  25. Dave says:

    The other thing that riding a bike can exacerbate is that certain parts of your body change shape, so sometimes clothes don’t fit as well anymore. It’s hard to find straight-leg jeans that accommodate my thighs, not because they’re fat – but they’re still large relative to my leg.

    You really have to cycle hard and a lot if you intend to do it for weight loss. Same for me, I lost maybe 15 lbs immediately, and have been basically just holding there (hard to say for sure, we don’t own a scale).

    But like you both mentioned, my legs take me everywhere I need to go. My own legs. It’s a good feeling of self-confidence and empowerment. And convenient to be able to move around on my own power.

    The whole ‘thin is healthy’ thing is a whole other ball of wax that could probably occupy several blog posts, but clearly weight is only one small indicator of health (and different for different body types), and a person can be in good health without being exactly the prescribed weight for their height. It’s definitely true that we should be looking to be healthy, not to look like the ‘approved’ model humans :)

    • Trisha says:

      Thigh size is my main fashion challenge. :) But yes, strong legs are worth it.

      • Dave says:

        …and it really depends on the person looking, too – I mean, ‘large thighs’ might be a general cultural taboo, but I find well-toned legs very attractive, even if they’re not slender and delicate. Anywhere in-between that unhealthily thin and overly-knotty-muscled bulk is really nice.

        • LGRAB says:

          Good point. And one that’s too easy to forget given the lack of size/shape diversity in media representations of beautiful people.

          • Dave says:

            Yup – and there’s also this assumption of an either-or. What I mean is, it’s assumed that if a person, for instance, finds thin, flat-stomached, generally perky body types attractive, they must think that a larger, curvier, higher-body-fat body type is ugly. That’s simply not true though.

        • Fred Smith says:

          I definitely think there’s a difference between toned and un-toned even if you’re fitting in to exactly the same clothes. Also if you stay the same weight but swap muscle for fat you’ll be thinner because muscle is more dense & compact.

  26. Megan says:

    I can’t tell you how many people , when I talk about losing weight, have told me “but you bike SO much, doesn’t it just melt off?” Ha! Biking SO much is my baseline now and I don’t consider it exercising. I am in great health and great shape though. By 30 you come to know your body and I know that giving up beer, cheese and bread is the only way to lose for me, not cycling.

    • LGRAB says:

      That would probably work for me, too — but is that a life worth living? I would argue not. :)

      I get those comments a lot too, one of the reasons I wanted to write this. City cycling is good for maintaining weight and for improving cardio health but can’t do much for weight loss on its own.

  27. Sorry! I wasn’t trying to lecture! I was trying to share what works for me. And I do believe that fit is healthy, not skinny. Personally, I hate it when I add pounds, and so I was trying to help. What I was hearing is that a lot of people find that they add weight when they ride, and this is what I found drops it. I believe that health is deeply affected by what we eat, and I never feel well when I am heavy.

    I weighed two hundred and twenty pounds when my little man was born nine years ago, and have gradually figured out what drops the weight. And cycling is a huge part of my success.

    And yes, I whole-heartedly agree that you look absolutely fabulous, Trish.

    • LGRAB says:

      Thanks for the explanation! It is true that what you eat can really affect your health. I wrote this post to encourage others to share what their experience has been and I appreciate you sharing yours.

  28. AnneK says:

    I’m so happy to hear this from someone else. I know that I’ve gotten fitter and have more endurance but, when you stay the exact same weight, it can be a little discouraging! Next year I hope to do a mini triathlon so maybe all of that training will help drop a few pounds. (A couple of years ago if you had told me I was considering a triathlon, I would have laughed very, very hard.) True, changing my diet entirely would do a lot but I love cheese and bread!

  29. tOrso says:

    I am getting on to 50 and am only slightly bigger than when I was twenty, and as fit. I was too skinny then!
    I have the idea that part of the equation is that what I eat I have to physically cart home, either by hand or by bike. As a result I am more incined to get what I most urgently need and enjoy, and relatively few dodgy things go in the pannier. I probably have a taste for things that are good for me anyway. Red wine is good for me, yes ma’am.

  30. Lisa Corriveau says:

    I’ve had both experiences: l think I lost weight when I started cycle commuting a few years back. Then I stopped riding during my pregnancy & didn’t pick it up again until over a year later. Since having a baby, I find the weight I gained is a lot more stubborn about melting off than it used to be. But then again, my lifestyle is totally different because I’m not working full-time now & I can eat more often during the day.

    What’s more important to me than whether I lose a pound or two is that cycling is fun & my son loves riding with me. :)

  31. janinedm says:

    It hasn’t been true for me, but i think it would be true for many. Most Americans live a sedentary lifestyle, so even walking would make them thinner. If you’re the type who was already jogging or whatever, I’d say not to expect big changes. Particularly if your other workouts had real participation from the arms.

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