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While pedal-assist e-bikes that provide motor assistance when the rider pedals have been widely accepted as a faster and more convenient transportation vehicle than traditional pedal bicycles, some have reportedly wondered about their efficacy from a fitness standpoint. A new study recently compared e-bikes and pedal bikes in a controlled head-to-head experiment to determine exactly how they stack up against each other.
Most health organizations recommend that adults partake in 2.5 hours of moderate intensity exercise each week. And while cycling on a pedal bicycle has long been established as fulfilling this exercise recommendation, the study set out to determine if pedal-assist e-bikes can also provide such a workout. At the end, the study concluded that while riders engage in higher intensity exercise when using a non-electric bike, the amount of exertion on an e-bike still provided the moderate intensity exercise level that is recommended to avoid or reduce the risk of serious health conditions.
The study simulated a three mile commute that was performed by riders on both a pedal bike and a 350W class 1 electric bike. The same rider performed three simulated commutes: on a standard pedal bicycle ride, on the electric bicycle in pedal assist level 1 and again on pedal assist level 2. The riders’ heart rate (HR) and oxygen consumption (V̇O2) were continuously monitored during the rides, which enabled the study’s authors to calculate a number of cardiometabolic figures. Also, at the end of each ride, the subject self-reported a rating for perceived exertion (RPE), or how much effort they felt that they exerted.
As expected, the results indicated that pedal bicycles provided higher cardiometabolic and RPE feedback. The percentage of maximum heart rate reached on the pedal bicycle, e-bike at assist level 1 and e-bike at assist level 2 were 66%, 62%, and 56%, respectively. And similar results were found for V̇O2max (55 vs 47 vs 39), RPE (12.3 vs 9.8 vs 8.4), metabolic equivalents (METs) (6.5 vs 5.6 vs 4.6), caloric expenditure (505 vs 422 vs 344 kcal·h−1), and time (865 vs 748 vs 681 s), respectively.
Moreover, the authors also learned that many riders found the e-bike rides to be more enjoyable than the pedal bike. They speculated that this speaks to the e-bike’s higher potential to convert car commuters into cycling commuters. The study reported: “Positive perceptions toward e-bike riding occurred in most participants, and qualitative analyses included perceptions of commuting with an e-bike as “easier” and “fun,” among other positive terms. Together, these results imply that e-bikes are viable options for active transportation that can benefit individual health and reduce congestion and pollution from gas-powered vehicles.”
In order to achieve climate targets, the U.S. must significantly reduce its use of cars altogether. Even during the pandemic, when traffic across the country decreased dramatically, transportation contributed the largest share of carbon emissions in the U.S. And to reduce car dependency and make decarbonization far easier, it’s crucial to enhance transit, biking, and walking — as well as building more housing closer to jobs, schools, groceries, and other necessities.