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Do e-bikes really give you a workout? Here’s what BYU researchers say

By Ashley Imlay, KSL | Posted - Nov 12th, 2019 @ 7:01am


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PROVO — For many adults, the phrase “as easy as riding a bike” might sound like a misnomer.

Because let’s face it — exercise isn’t fun for everyone.

But Brigham Young University researchers found in a recent study that electric mountain bikes provide nearly as strenuous of a workout as traditional bikes, while not making the rider feel as if they’ve just performed a difficult workout.

The results could help many find a new way to recreate.

The idea for the study, published recently in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, came about among three BYU public health professors, all avid mountain bikers, as they took students on study abroad trips to Europe over the past few years, said Cougar Hall, lead author on the study.

There, e-bike popularity has skyrocketed, Hall said.

“We thought, ‘We don’t see these back home very often.’ But we noticed, our students would tell us, ‘Man, I hate riding a bike back home because it’s so hard. But these are just easy enough that I think I would ride my bike more often,’” Hall recalled.

The professors wanted to find out if electric bicycles are really easier for people, and if they still provide a decent workout.

So they got four e-mountain bikes, equipped 33 experienced bikers with heart rate monitors, sent them on a 6-mile trail loop on a traditional mountain bike, and then the same loop on an e-bike.

They found that the e-bike trips put participants in the “moderate to vigorous” heart rate zone, at an average of just 9.9 heartbeats per minute lower than on a traditional bike.

“It was pretty cool, they were actually getting the exercise we were hoping they would get,” Hall said.

While riding e-bikes, the participants’ heart rates were in what exercise experts call the “vigorous training zone,” which strengthens the heart, he said.

Research from BYU shows riders of e-bikes get high-intensity workouts similar to those conventional bikes provide. (Photo: Nate Edwards, BYU Photo)

Those results could open new pathways to many who perceive working out as painful.

A large portion of the population faces various barriers to getting physical activity, like lack of walking paths, poor air quality and cold weather. But one of the biggest barriers for many is “that they perceive that it’s hard,” according to Hall.

“And we often have these really negative feelings, from being pushed too much when we were young, maybe. Maybe physical activity is associated with competition in sports when you were a young child. Or we had to run the mile in eight minutes to get an ‘A’, and we didn’t do that, so we feel bad and we tell ourselves we don’t like running. There’s all sorts of things that actually are barriers to physical activity for entire populations,” he explained.

After the participants rode the course on the e-bikes, they reported it didn’t feel like a tough workout.

“If we can get people on e-bikes, they might feel like, ‘This isn’t so hard. This is something I can do, and something that I can maintain and stick with,’” Hall said, adding that he sees e-bikes as a possible catalyst to help people move more in general and overcome the barrier of perceived discomfort.

“We are really suffering from what we call lifestyle diseases. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes. These are all diseases that are directly related to our lifestyle. So to get people moving more — and to find a healthy outlet for the stress that we feel in our work and in our families — it’s essential. And so I just see e-bikes as one additional tool, one additional opportunity to help people who are otherwise fairly sedentary or not enjoying physical activity.”

Though Hall granted the participants were experienced bikers, he said the results still show the e-bikes gave them a good — though easier — workout, and show that they could especially benefit those who with more sedentary lifestyles, elderly people and those recovering from injuries.

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“It might give them the confidence they need to get back on the trail and engage in a really, really fun sport,” the professor explained.

The study is particularly suited for Utah because of its many popular scenic bike trails.

Starting the study, the researchers were aware that not everyone in the biking community is excited about electric mountain bikes. Some are resistant and don’t want to see more people on the trails, causing possible erosion.

“And I think there’s a perception that, when it comes to mountain biking, like hiking and skiing and other things, that there’s a natural progression. That you build up both your cardiovascular and endurance base, but you also build up your skill set. So it’s an activity that many users feel is earned, that you kind of earn the ability by putting so many hours in on the bike to be able to be on the trails.”

Knowing that attitude exists, the researchers asked the participants a few questions about their opinions on e-bikes. Of them, 61% said they had a more favorable opinion of e-bikes after riding them.

It’s the type of activity one needs to try before making a decision, Hall said.

But he emphasized that he doesn’t believe e-bikes replace traditional bikes. He says he rides both and enjoys both.

Hall’s favorite use of e-bikes is when he rides with his 82-year-old father, who is still active but can’t ride a traditional mountain bike because it’s too hard for his legs to climb hills.

Research from BYU shows riders of e-bikes get high-intensity workouts similar to those conventional bikes provide. (Photo: Nate Edwards, BYU Photo)

“The assist is just enough to get him over and through some of those spots that he feels are too difficult at his current age,” Hall explained.

While e-bikes remain uncommon in Utah, Hall foresees a time when many people will use them as technology improves and they become more affordable. Now, they range in price from about $1,000 to, on the higher end, several thousand dollars.

Next, the researchers want to replicate the study among an elderly group and people with sedentary lifestyles. Those studies are awaiting approval from the university, Hall said.

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