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Is bike riding better for you than walking?

Is bike riding better for you than walking? Close up image of man's legs on bicycle, with mountains and sun flare in the background.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is bike riding better for you than walking when it comes to weighing up the best ways to stay active and healthy? Both are highly accessible forms of exercise and can be done on a low budget (or on no budget at all if you’re walking). However, you might be wondering; which one provides a better workout? Can one form of exercise result in more significant weight loss? And which one is better for you in the long-term?

We answer these questions below in an attempt to determine whether bike riding is better for you than walking in terms of health benefits and weight loss. This should be especially useful if you’re considering buying a bike and are wondering how the benefits of one would compare to the benefits of walking.

Cycling vs walking: Which is a better workout?

Firstly, it’s worth saying that both walking and cycling provide positive health benefits and will count towards the 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week that's recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay fit and well.

Public Health England shows that regular physical activity is beneficial for health by reducing all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and strokes, as well as reducing the risk of developing cancer and type two diabetes. It can also improve your quality of sleep and quality of life.

Stationary cycling has been proven by Medicina to significantly increase VO2 Max (maximal oxygen consumption during exercise), while walking studies by the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports have shown a moderate increase in VO2 Max. 

For walking, the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that walking at least 100 steps per minute will ensure that you’re moving at a speed that will result in fitness benefits. If you’re looking to hit a particular target, whether that’s a number of steps per day or a certain cadence, fitness trackers or watches can help measure both your day-to-day activities and your exercise.

Is bike riding better for you than walking? A female walker crosses a stream

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Cycling on an exercise bike can increase your heart rate in different ways depending on the type of workout you do (for example, interval training will raise your heart rate for short and intense periods of time). As a rough guide, according to Heart Zones, cycling for 30 minutes in zone two (which equates to 60–70% of your maximum heart rate) will burn around 70–85% fat, with the rest coming from carbohydrates.

Penny Weston, fitness expert and founder of wellness centre Made, told Live Science that if you want to strengthen the muscles in your legs to make them look more toned, walking and stationary cycling are both ideal. "Walking across different terrains such as hills is particularly effective at doing this. Muscle tissue burns four times as many calories as fat, so the muscles you build through walking can also help you to lose more weight by reducing fat and building muscle instead," said Weston.

Riding an exercise bike can also help build strength in your legs and lower body, as the pedaling can strengthen calves, hamstrings and quadriceps as well as working the muscles in the core, back and glutes.

Cycling vs walking: which is better to lose weight?

You may not think of walking as a strenuous form of exercise, but it’s actually an effective way to get in shape and burn fat. "Walking can help to reduce overall fat, and walking for just 30 minutes can burn approximately 200 calories, depending on factors such as your speed and bodyweight," said Weston. That figure is based on walking on flat ground and you can burn more calories by varying the terrain you walk on.

In comparison, a stationary bike workout can burn up to 300 calories in half an hour. "Obviously this will vary depending on your bodyweight and the intensity of the workout, but it makes it a great calorie-burner if you’re looking to lose weight," said Weston. 

A 2010 study by Arquivos Brasileiros de Cardiologia found that indoor cycling combined with a low-calorie diet was effective in reducing bodyweight and body fat in the study’s participants. It was also effective in lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which is a type of fat in the blood (also called lipids).

Cycling vs walking: which is better long-term?

Both walking and stationary cycling increase the amount of blood the muscles in your legs need to move. The heart pumps more blood to the cells, so the more activity you do, the more the heart has to pump. It does this by increasing your heart rate.

A study of walking outdoors in groups by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that walking regularly had a wide range of health benefits, significantly reducing study participants' blood pressure, resting heart rate, body fat, body mass index, cholesterol and depression.

Meanwhile, research by the University of Glasgow in the British Medical Journal found that commuting to work regularly by bike reduced the likelihood of premature death from all natural causes by 41% over the five years of follow-up. Meanwhile, those who walked regularly had a 36% lower risk of dying from heart problems when compared to those who took public transport.

Is bike riding better for you than walking? Image of woman working out on a bike at the gym

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Stationary cycling will result in the same benefits as walking, with the added bonus that it puts less pressure on your joints than other weight-bearing activities such as walking. If you suffer from any problems with your lower-limb joints and muscles, or are returning from injury, cycling will have less of a cumulative negative effect compared with weight-bearing exercises that over time may worsen the problem or even lead to further injury.

Working out on an exercise bike also offers more opportunities to enjoy varied workouts thanks to the adjustable resistance, sprints, long endurance rides, interval training and even hill training.

So, what's the science-backed verdict on whether walking or cycling is better for you in terms of overall fitness benefits? Although they are both positive ways to achieve active movement, cycling edges it in terms of providing a better workout, burning calories, aiding weight loss and reducing the risk of death by natural causes in the long term. 

However, as with any form of exercise, the benefits of walking and cycling will depend on individual factors such as the regularity, volume and intensity of training and an individual's diet. 

Howard Calvert

When not seeking out new running and cycling trails, Howard writes about all things health and fitness as a freelance writer for a range of newspapers, magazines and websites.