Here’s the good news: Cycling is one of the best ways to burn hundreds of calories during a workout. The bad news: Most people overestimate how many calories are burned per mile or hour while cycling—often by a lot. But it’s not your fault. If anything, health writers like me deserve to shoulder a large chunk of the blame. For years, we touted the amazing calorie-burning benefits of everyday activity like a leisurely coffee shop ride. We didn’t mean to delude anyone; we were being deluded ourselves, relying on tools like calorie calculators that estimate energy expenditure using formulas based on METs (short for metabolic equivalent of task) and weight. And those numbers can be highly individual—or woefully inaccurate.
For instance, let’s take that leisurely ride. Generally, cycling about 12 mph comes in at 8 METs, which means a 150-pound (68-kilogram) rider may burn more than 540 calories in an hour. That’s a strong “may,” though—especially if that rider is also pretty fit on the bike.
That’s because the fitter you are, the more efficient you are, and the less energy/fewer calories you use when you ride at a given pace. (File that under“life’s not fair.”) That figure also never takes into account the fact that you’d be expending 1 MET and burning 68 calories that hour even if you were doing nothing more strenuous than watching TV. So you’re not burning an additional 540 calories; the additional calories are less.
Now, we don’t believe in food as a reward for cycling; […]