While researchers debate the health risks of a higher body mass index (BMI) or carrying a few extra pounds, everyone can agree that carrying too much weight around your waist is largely detrimental to your health. Research shows that a waistline over 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women puts you at risk for heart disease even if you’re not technically overweight and are otherwise in good health. Belly fat has also been linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and diabetes. So, you might be wondering: How can I burn belly fat?
The good news is that you already own the best tool for shedding that unhealthy midsection fat: your bike. The key is performing a variety of workouts that build your fat-burning engine, rev your metabolism and the production of fat-burning hormones, suppress your appetite, and help you burn more fat and calories all day long. Yep, your bike can do all that. Here’s exactly how to burn belly fat on the bike.
Go Hard to Burn Belly Fat
Do interval training once or twice a week—no need for more (see below), and stick to one day if you race or go hard on weekends. Numerous studies have found that high-intensity training significantly reduces total abdominal fat, including dangerous visceral (belly) fat more effectively than lower-intensity exercise.
There are endless ways to do interval training. One simple example: First, the warm-up for 10 to 15 minutes. Then, pick up your effort so you’re working hard (a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10—you should be breathing hard, but not gasping) for 30 to 60 seconds. Go easy for one minute. Repeat for a total of 5 times, and the cooldown for two to three minutes.
Research shows your body also unleashes human growth hormone, which helps you burn fat and maintain muscle, after just 10 to 30 seconds of high-intensity exercise. High-intensity exercise also appears to help curb your appetite and trigger hormones that regulate feelings of hunger and fullness better than lower-intensity exercise, so you’re less likely to overeat.
Keep It Controlled
Yes. We just told you to go hard to burn off belly fat—but as we mentioned, don’t overdo it. Going hard all the time stresses your body and leaves you chronically inflamed, which can backfire by contributing to belly-fat storage. Cap the intensity to a couple of times a week and take the rest of your weekly rides at a controlled, comfortable pace.
“Most recreational cyclists are doing too much high-intensity training, and they’re not getting leaner or faster,” says Iñigo San Millán, Ph.D., the director of the Exercise Physiology and Human Performance Lab at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “Many of your rides should be in Zone 2,” he says. That’s an intensity where you can talk the whole time—about a 5 to 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. “This is usually the intensity that elicits the highest fat oxidation for energy purposes,” says San Millán.
These rides are not only good for burning fat, but also for building your slow-twitch, endurance muscle fibers, increasing capillary development, improving your ability to use lactate for energy, and making you a better fat-burner all around.
Use the 80/20 Rule
A number of coaches prescribe what is known as the “80/20 rule,” also called polarized training, for balancing training intensity. It’s definitely worth a try for burning off belly fat as well as for getting fitter and faster.
The goal is to spend 80 percent of riding time at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate to hard intensity. That way, when it’s time to go hard, you have the freshness and energy reserves to go hard enough to maximize those interval efforts.
Hitting both intensities actually improves your abilities all around: Your slow-twitch muscle fibers do the work of recycling the lactate your high-intensity, fast-twitch fibers produce. So when you spend time building them, the payoff is being able to work harder at high intensity—which in turn stimulates more fat burning.
Research shows this intensity combo also makes you faster. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found that when cyclists performed six weeks of 80/20-style training, they more than doubled their power and performance gains, such as lactate threshold, compared to when they spent more time in moderate training zones.
Turn up your fat-burning by starting two or three rides each week fasted. Just do your normal ride, but start on an empty stomach (you can drink black coffee or tea).
If you’re riding for more than two hours, take food with you—the goal isn’t to bonk—and begin eating at the two-hour mark. Fasted riding is a tried and true way to help your body burn more fat. It’s easiest to do before breakfast after you’ve fasted all night long, and your glycogen stores are low, so your body needs to tap into fat for fuel. Just ride at a steady state with low intensity.
Commute to Work
Even small bike trips deliver fat-burning benefits over time. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health reported that people who started commuting by bike for as little as 10 minutes each way lost a couple of pounds and improved their BMIs over a span of two years.
Those whose commutes were at least 30 minutes each way saw significant weight and BMI improvements, losing about 15 pounds and reducing their BMIs by an average of 2.25 points over the same time period.
Putting in more time on the bike is undoubtedly important. But to make sure you’re reaping the full rewards from the tips above, it’s also important to recover properly from your rides by getting enough shut-eye as that alone can even help you shed some pounds.
Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep over time can, in fact, lead to weight gain. According to one study from the journal Endocrine Development, sleep deprivation can lead to an increase in appetite and the stress hormone cortisol, plus it can negatively impact your body’s metabolism, glucose tolerance, and insulin sensitivity—all of which can lead to weight gain. So, proper shut-eye during the night will help keep you healthy, happy, and ready to ride during the day.
“The Fit Chick” Selene Yeager is a top-selling professional health and fitness writer who lives what she writes as a NASM certified personal trainer, USA Cycling certified coach, Pn1 certified nutrition coach, pro licensed off-road racer, and All-American Ironman triathlete.