Fitness: Bicycles and e-bikes should share the road and the spotlight – Montreal Gazette

Despite differences in frequency, intensity and weekly exercise minutes, both sets of cyclists have the same primary motive: physical fitness.
E-bikes have gone from being luxury items to more mainstream in the space of a few years, with more and more Canadians taking their two-wheeled electric vehicles on and off road. Environmentalists give e-bikes full marks for their low carbon footprint and potential to reduce the number of trips made in gas-powered vehicles.

Health and fitness advocates, however, are a little less enthusiastic about the popularity of e-bikes. With a motor designed to assist pedaling, the primary selling feature of e-bikes is that they make cycling less physically demanding. No more huffing and puffing up a steep hill or into a strong headwind. Just activate the motor and the hard work is done for you. But less effort means the fitness benefits typically associated with bicycles are no longer a given.
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To get a better sense of the impact e-bikes have on fitness and health, a team from Hannover University and Medical School in Germany collected data from 1,250 e-bike riders and 629 traditional cyclists. The goal was to find out how many were reaching the recommended amount of weekly exercise — 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise — required to improve health. All study subjects were supplied with a smartwatch activity tracker that recorded the time, heart rate and distance travelled during every bike trip over a period of four weeks. The data was transmitted to the researchers.

People using e-bikes were less likely to accumulate 150 or more minutes of moderate intensity activity per week (22.4 per cent) than traditional cyclists (35 per cent).

“The time spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity during cycling per week was lower for the e-bike group, with a mean difference of 69.7 minutes per week,” the researchers said.  

The data also revealed that e-bikers went out for a spin less often during the week, averaging 3.8 trips versus 5.9 trips for traditional cyclists, who also logged more minutes cycling during the week. But people with e-bikes took longer trips (6.6 more minutes per trip) than those on non-motorized bikes. As for the difference in intensity between the two sets of cyclists, those pedalling traditional bikes recorded higher heart rates, averaging 119 beats per minute, versus 113 bpm for the e-cyclists.

Despite the differences in frequency, intensity and weekly exercise minutes, both sets of cyclists shared the same primary motive for purchasing their bikes: physical fitness, with convenience ranking No 2. Environmental concerns played only a minor role in their respective purchase decisions. Yet when it came to choosing between their bike and a four-wheeled gas guzzler, e-cyclists were more likely to opt for their bike while traditional cyclists were inclined to choose public transit.

There was no significant difference in the number of accidents reported by cyclists and e-bikers, although women were more likely to get into an accident while using an e-bike.  

When it comes to physical fitness, traditional bikes would appear to be a better choice than e-bikes. But the German researchers offer insight beyond the numbers.

“Given the observed higher energy expenditure when using a traditional bicycle, it appears we should recommend bicycles rather than e-bikes to attain optimized health effects,” they said. “However, this view neglects the fact that certain individuals make a deliberate choice to purchase an e-bike, who would not otherwise consider conventional cycling.”

The data revealed that e-bikes were particularly popular with older, less fit, overweight or less healthy individuals who appreciated the comfort of e-bikes.

What does all this mean for anyone wavering between purchasing a conventional bike and an e-bike? If fitness is your primary goal, then a self-powered bike is your best option. But if you’ve shied away from buying a road bike for a variety of reasons — you find it uncomfortable, you don’t consider yourself fit enough to cycle to work or for leisure, or it takes too long to commute by traditional bike — then an e-bike might be your next investment.  

“The increasing attractiveness and popularity of e-bikes might facilitate recreational cycling and active commuting, particularly for those who are limited by age or illness-associated constrictions and who otherwise would not opt to use a bicycle,” the researchers said.

The more cyclists and e-cyclists there are on the streets, the more overall minutes Canadians will be spending exercising per week — which is a big public health win. Not to mention there will be fewer cars polluting the air — which is good for the environment.

Some exercise is better than no exercise, so if it takes the occasional assist to get more Canadians riding a bike to work or around their neighbourhood, then there’s no need to make e-cyclists feel any less of a cyclist than those who chose traditional self-powered bikes. E-bikes are here to stay. Let’s hope we can say the same about the newest cohort of cyclists who appreciate a bit of extra help to reach their destination.

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