This post describes the health benefits of electric bikes, based on scientific research and on the experiences of electric bike riders. These health benefits include getting significant levels of exercise, improving cardiac health, improving blood sugar levels, strengthening muscles, bones and joints, building confidence, being able to keep cycling as we age, and preventing serious diseases. My next post explains how you can use an electric bike to get fitter and healthier.
#1 Health Benefit of Electric Bikes: Health Benefits Resulting from Sustained Aerobic Exercise
Researchers have proven beyond dispute that exercising is the best thing we can do for our health – so much so that scientists have called exercise a miracle cure for the diseases that kill most of us, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression (Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Exercise: The miracle cure and the role of the doctor in promoting it).
The American Heart Association affirms that exercise can help prevent heart disease and stroke, which are the No. 1 and No. 5 killers, respectively. Based on these acknowledged benefits, the US Government recommends that we all get at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise – or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise – per week. Remember that number, because much of this post is all about getting that 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise!
The Center of Disease Control and Prevention has found that about 80% of Americans fall short of this fairly modest goal. No wonder, given that most of us are so over-worked we don’t even have time to get enough sleep! Also, many people have health limitations that make certain kinds of exercise difficult to do.
Cycling has the potential to help many people meet the suggested exercise goals, especially if they use it as part of their everyday life, such as commuting to work. This time is going to be spent anyway, so we might as well get some benefit from it! However, not everyone can cycle, or cycle substantial distances, due to factors such as low levels of fitness, age-related limitations, steep hills, long distances, the need to transport children or groceries, etc. This is of course where ebikes can help. Electric bikes make cycling possible for a much wider range of people, by providing assistance up hills, with loads, over distances, etc. They make it possible for less fit people to bike commute long distances – and improve their fitness.
Of course, some people will object that cycling with assistance by definition does not provide exercise. Well, the fact is that pedelec bikes require pedaling at all times, and therefore do provide exercise. On these bikes, assistance only kicks in once you pedal, usually in proportion to how hard you pedal. Anyone who has ever done a challenging commute on an electric bike knows perfectly well that it provides a good workout. They also know that you can choose how much – or, crucially, how little – assistance you engage at any time. There is nothing to stop you turning off all assistance on flats and downhills, for example.
For those who do not have personal experience of the exercise one can get on an ebike, there is research out of Boulder, Colorado, to prove the point. A study entitled “Pedelecs as a physically active transportation mode,” published in Eur J Appl Physiol., reported on the health benefits to sedentary people who started riding ebikes. Participants were loaned electric bikes and asked to ride them at a comfortable pace at least 3 times per week for at least 40 minutes per ride. This would provide just 2 hours of the recommended 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. Still, as the participants were sedentary, it would at least be 2 hours more exercise per week than they were previously doing. This trial lasted for just 1 month, with the participants wearing GPS trackers and heart rate monitors. At the beginning and the end, a wide range of medical assessments were conducted.
Most participants were found to have cycled more than required, with several having biked about 50 percent more. This is of course attributable to the “fun factor” of ebiking. Participants reported that the ebike riding was “a blast.” William Byrnes, the study’s senior author, noted: “It’s exercise that is fun.” And as we all know, the key reason why most people give up on exercise programs is simply because most exercise programs are not fun.
The first key finding was that the ebike cyclists’ heart rates had averaged about 75% of their maximum. This level of exercise can be compared to brisk walking or to an easy jog. This shows that despite the electrical assist, the cyclists were getting precisely the kind of moderate workout that is recommended by the US Government to promote health and ward off diseases.
The other key findings included an improvement in blood sugar control. Given that diabetes is a significant threat to the health of sedentary people, this was an extraordinary benefit in just 4 weeks (Source: The Clinical and Public Health Challenges of Diabetes Prevention: A Search for Sustainable Solutions).
Participants were found to have significantly improved their aerobic fitness, and the findings showed a trend toward less body fat in the group. There were also trends for improvements in blood pressure. Not surprisingly, since the study ended, many of the participants have gone out and purchased electric bikes. My personal experience is that once you see the health benefits of ebikes, it is addictive.
Similar results were achieved in a study in the UK, where 40 Bupa International employees were loaned ebikes for up to 8 weeks. Most cycled more than they had before, and researcher Dr. Sally Cairns noted that: “The proportion of participants who said they would cycle to work at least one day a week rose from 30% to 75% if they had an e-bike available.” Prof. Nanette Mutrie added:
“When I started as a member of the steering group for this project I was somewhat skeptical about the health benefits of electric bicycles. However … I am now in no doubt that these ebikes have a health-enhancing role. The ebikes require the rider to pedal at all times and they are likely to provide at least moderate levels of physical activity for most people. Use of such bikes will therefore be of potential health benefit to all those who need to increase their levels of physical activity, and who use them in preference to undertaking less active types of travel.” (Source: The Guardian)
In yet another study, this time at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, researchers were similarly skeptical about the aerobic benefits of ebiking, so they hooked participants up to portable oxygen analysers linked to a GPS as they rode both regular bikes and ebikes. The rides were designed to simulate bike commuting to work. The researchers were focused on the crucial need identified above – moderate exercise. They noted:
“Health officials recommend moderate or intensive activity at least 150 minutes per week. Moderate activity is defined as three times a person’s resting metabolic rate, in other words three times as much as when we are lying still.” (Source: ScienceNordic)
Their research showed that all of the cyclists were moderately active most of the time. The people on ebikes were 8.5 times as active as when they were resting; while the people on regular bikes were 10.9 times as active. Those on ebikes used an average of 51% of their lung capacity; while those on regular bikes used 58% on average. This difference was smaller than the researchers expected, and certainly confirmed that the ebikers were meeting the recommended levels of moderate exercise for promoting good health. Prof. Elling Bere stated:
“The conclusion is that e-cycling is a good form of physical activity and I think many will be surprised to hear it. At least I was. I expected a much greater difference between conventional and electricity assisted bicycling … if more people stop driving cars and start using e-bikes to their jobs it would have a positive effect on public health.” (Source: ScienceNordic)
Of course, using an ebike will not improve the fitness levels of elite athletes. However, for the average person who just needs more moderate exercise in their everyday life, electric bikes are clearly an excellent way to achieve this crucial health goal.
Given that it has been proven that electric bikes do provide meaningful moderate-intensity exercise that meets health guidelines, the next question is: will people cycle more if they have ebikes? This brings us to health benefit #2 of electric bikes.
#2 Health Benefit of Electric Bikes: Cycling More
It appears that people who have electric bikes spend more time riding them, than do people who have regular bikes. For example, a study in Norway showed that ebikes cause people to cycle longer and more often – especially woman. Aslak Fyhri at the Institute of Transport Economics summarized:
“People travel twice as much on the electric bike [as on a regular bike], both in terms of kilometres, amount of trips, and as part of the total transportation. The effect of having an electric bike was particularly strong among women. They did far more trips with their e-bikes than men did. Men, on the other hand, often went for longer trips once they were out cycling. … In order to cycle to work every day you have to prepare, take care of logistics and perhaps change and shower when you arrive. To many people, this is too much of a project. With an electric bike you reach greater distances in less time, and you may wear your ordinary clothes or a suit jacket since you don’t sweat. Many of the shorter trips done by car today may potentially be done by e-bike.”
The researchers gave an experimental group of 66 people unlimited access to an electric bike. All of them had been cyclists before. However, with ebikes they increased their daily cycling trips, and also doubled the average length of their trips from 3 to 6.4 miles. With the electric bikes, they were soon meeting almost half of their transport needs with bikes. These effects increased with time, indicating a positive learning effect among users. (Source: Effects of e-bikes on bicycle use and mode share. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 2015; 36: 45 DOI)
The fact that ebikes cause you to cycle more is borne out anecdotally by pretty much every electric bike owner you talk to. After I switched to ebikes, for the first time in my life I was able to sustain cycling to work every single day, even though I had to go over an enormous hill. Over three years, I became the fittest I have been in my entire adult life, as a direct result of that regular exercise on an electric bike.
But don’t just take my word for it! There is an interesting debate on this matter on the Electric Bike Review’s Forum, where person after person comments on how their ebike has caused them to do much more cycling – and how they are feeling the benefits in terms of their health and their strength. Below are just a few of the comments. You can read the entire string here.
“I ride longer, further, pedal harder and without a doubt get more exercise because I use it more and click off more miles.”
“My ebike replaced my car. Definitely getting more exercise than driving my car. I went from riding a bike maybe 200 miles a year, to 3000 miles a year on my electric bike, going on 5 years now.”
“The electric bike has me riding a bike more often and because of this, my vote is I’m getting more exercise than a regular bike.”
“I ride farther and longer with my ebike. I am not afraid of any hills, and feel I can go anywhere. Not so with my conventional bikes. The end result is that I exercise more.”
“I wear a Garmin Fitbit HR, so I know my heart rate throughout my rides. At age 76, I can maintain 120 bpm over hours.”
Obviously, if you want to use an ebike to improve your health and fitness, it is very useful to monitor your heart rate to make sure you are doing enough to keep fit. Here is a post about how to use a heart rate monitor to get fit. Best of all is to invest in a top quality activity tracker that you can just put on your wrist and forget, such as the highly rated Garmin Fenix 5 Sapphire (currently at the top of my personal wish list – only 356 days till Christmas!)
#3 Health Benefit of Electric Bikes: Strengthening Muscles, Bones, and Joints
Ebikes are substantially heavier than normal bikes (usually weighing in at anything from 40 to 80 pounds). For this reason, steering, pedaling, and balancing an electric bike provides strengthening exercise that promotes healthy and strong muscles, bones, and joints.
“Joint conditions such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and chronic lower back pain affect a majority of Americans today, all of which can lead to an increased risk of fracture, pain, disability or deformity. Physical activities, such as riding an electric bike, are a safe and readily accessible way of improving bone strength and reducing the risk of osteoporotic fractures.” (Source: 3 Surprising Health Benefits of Riding an Ebike)
Your core strength will also increase noticeably as you regularly use your core muscles to balance your electric bike.
#4 Health Benefit of Electric Bikes: Building Confidence
It is common for people in their forties and beyond to realize that starting to do regular exercise will help them to maintain their health and quality of life as they age. Cycling may seem like a great option, but many people may not have ridden a bike for decades, and may be intimidated. An ebike can make starting to cycle again much less daunting. Maggie went through this after back surgery, when an ebike enabled her to slowly start cycling again, until she had the confidence and strength to get back on her Giant road bike.
Susan Clark in the UK had a similar experience, noting that her return to regular cycling was “in no small part thanks to the electric bike which, it turns out, has given me the confidence to get back out on the roads on two wheels, the time to slowly improve my fitness and a taste for cycling that I didn’t expect to enjoy quite this much.”
With an electric bike people can start cycling again, but have the comfort of knowing they have an electric motor to help with any scary hills, or if they just run out of steam on the way home.
#5 Health Benefit of Electric Bikes: Older People and People with Health Problems can Keep Exercising
The developed nations of the world currently face an aging crisis, as increasing proportions of their populations become older citizens, many with accompanying health problems (source: 2016 Census). Many people get into a vicious cycle, as health limitations cause them to stop exercising, which in turn causes them to develop health problems related to lack of exercise, such as diabetes and heart disease. For this rapidly growing group of people, the massive benefits of electric bikes are only just beginning to be recognized.
I have previously written up the case studies of three seniors with serious health challenges who have reversed this trend of declining health by cycling on electric bikes. The challenges they faced included heart attacks, cancer, neurological problems, and stroke. But they didn’t let that stop them – they got out there on ebikes, and they kept on exercising! Because of cycling on ebikes, they all enjoyed an improvement in their health, and a better quality of life. Not to mention less isolation and improved mental health.
I have also written a post that shows with graphical evidence how a senior with heart disease was able to ride an ebike and burn up a significant amount of calories, as well as elevate his heart rate to the correct level to get significant health benefits without endangering himself.
Apart from serious health problems, there are also minor health problems that prevent people from cycling as they age. These include carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, and knee pain. Well, ebikes help with these as well! Another ebike cyclist from the EBR Forum reports:
“An ebike allows a much more comfortable cruiser style position. Many people my age (sixties) have had to give up cycling because of carpal tunnel problems.”
And of course, the fact that you can engage a variable amount of assistance on an ebike means that you can ease off if your knees or back are hurting. Many people have been able to keep cycling on electric bikes because of this benefit. I am one of them, as I reported in my post on how to use an ebike for rehabilitation.
In sum, electric bikes offer a range of impressive health benefits. They are simply one of the most effective and enjoyable ways to get the moderate exercise we need to preserve our health. If you are not already enjoying the benefits – what are you waiting for? Yes, a decent ebike will cost money, but the value of health is incalculable. And before you invest your hard-earned money, check out my buying advice in my book called How to Buy the Best Electric Bike!
Happy Electric Cycling!
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