Whether or not electric bicycles actually provide decent exercise is a hotly debated topic. But while we can argue back and forth all day, there’s no substitute for hard facts and real data. So I put my e-bike (and myself) to the test!
A few weeks ago, I bought an activity monitor and fell straight down the rabbit hole of analyzing how my different daily activities affect my heart rate and fitness.
And as an electric bicycle journalist slash junkie, I was just as fascinated to finally see how electric bicycle riding affected my daily exercise.
To be fair, heart rate alone doesn’t give a 100% complete picture regarding the impact of exercise. But when it comes to cardio health, it’s a pretty decent stand-in for comparing exercise when used as an indicator of exercise intensity.
And as I started monitoring my rides, the results of my e-biking began speaking for themselves.
To make the testing more interesting, I grabbed the most powerful e-bike in my garage: a 1,500W FREY EX electric mountain bike. This bike is rocking the infamous Bafang Ultra motor, which puts out a maximum of 160 Nm of torque.
And while it has a throttle, I try to use it sparingly when I’m riding for fitness. I rarely use the throttle while riding off-road and single-track trails, though I admit that I’ll lay on it pretty heavily when hopping back on the road. With a top speed of around 37 mph (60 km/h), riding it like a motorbike on the road is hard to resist sometimes. On the dirt though, I’m almost always using pedal assist.
I’ve done a number of different styles of rides in my testing, but the one shown below is probably one of my most representative as it covers a range of terrain.
For this particular test, I did around 50% road riding and 50% trail riding, all over the course of a 90-minute ride. The road riding was partly throttle-based, but mostly pedal assist. The trail riding was nearly all pedal assist. And while the motor can put out 1,500W of power, during pedal-assist riding I was usually peaking at not much over 750W.
A bit of the riding included more technical obstacles and trail, seen below.
I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I think I’m getting better. And my FREY EX is definitely helping! 1.5kW! (Though this was on Eco mode with just pedal assist) pic.twitter.com/lvCF6cH5rp
— Micah Toll (@MicahToll) June 23, 2020
What I found from my daily heart rate analysis definitely surprised me.
It starts with my morning run, where I try to do 5-10 km each day. This day, I did about 4 miles or 6.4 km. As you can see, during intense exercise like running, my heart rate gets up to around 140 beats per minute (BPM). With my resting heart rate of 46, that’s pretty high for me.
Obviously running is an intense exercise and doesn’t include an electric motor to assist me, so I wouldn’t expect an e-bike to match that level of exercise. But surprisingly, my powerful e-bike got me closer than I expected. A few hours later on my 90-minute electric bike ride, my heart rate reached as high as 125 BPM and averaged just shy of 110 BPM. That might not be a strong cardio workout, but it’s a pretty decent clip above the rest of the day.
And in case you were curious, the short afternoon peak was actually a quick e-bike trip to run an errand. Even a five-minute ride got my heart working!
So what does this mean for e-bike exercise?
I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that the results I experienced will be the same for everyone. But I do think that my own self-experimentation shows that electric bikes — and even high-powered electric bikes — can be useful fitness tools. At least when they are used in pedal-assist mode.
Whenever I ride pedal-assist e-bikes, I usually feel like I’ve gotten a pretty decent amount of exercise from the riding session. I never get a “cheating” feeling, but rather the opposite. I take pride in how low I can keep the pedal-assist setting and how long I can stretch the battery.
I also find that using pedal assist will essentially “take the edge off” of the workout, reducing the intensity level from arduous to moderately strenuous, and I can further dial in my desired level of exercise with the pedal assist level. In other words, it cuts out the pain part and simply leaves me with decently hard work, but not exhaustion.
That means I usually stay out longer and wind up riding much further than I ever would on a pedal bike. It also means I can join some of my pure-cyclist friends on their longer rides, even though I’m not a Sunday-morning spandex rider like them.
By staying out longer and riding further, e-bikes help me get more cycling exercise than I would ever get on a pedal bike. And the fact that it is all disguised as a fun activity makes it that much easier to commit to spending more days riding and fewer days sitting around.
While some might have preferred to see this type of analysis performed identically on both an e-bike and a pedal bike to create a side-by-side comparison, that’s not really in the cards for me. I simply don’t get the same joy from riding pedal bikes and so I’d never want to nor be able to do this same 90-minute ride on pedal-power only. For me, I’d spend more time huffing and puffing and thus less time enjoying nature and the ride itself.
So if e-bikes can help me get good exercise and increase my daily exercise hours, I say that’s a win-win!
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