Belly fat is bad news. While researchers debate the real health risks of a higher body mass index (BMI) or carrying a few extra pounds, everyone agrees that carrying too much weight around your waist is largely detrimental to your health.
Research shows that a waistline over 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women puts you at risk for heart disease even if you’re not technically overweight and are otherwise in good health. Belly fat has also been linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and diabetes. Again, bad news.
The good news is that you already own the best tool for shedding that bad-news belly fat: your bike. The key is performing a variety of workouts that build your fat-burning engine, rev your metabolism and the production of fat-burning hormones, suppress your appetite, and help you burn more fat and calories all day long. Yep, your bike can do all that. Here’s how.
Go Hard to Lose Belly Fat
Do interval training once or twice a week—no need for more (see below), and stick to one day if you race or go hard on weekends. Numerous studies have found that high-intensity training significantly reduces total abdominal fat, including dangerous visceral (belly) fat more effectively than lower-intensity exercise.
There are endless ways to do interval training. One simple example: First, warm up for 10 to 15 minutes. Then, pick up your effort so you’re working hard (a 9 on a 1-to-10 scale—you should be breathing hard, but not gasping) for 30 seconds to one minute. Go easy for one minute. Repeat for a total of five times, and the cool down for two to three minutes.
Research shows your body also unleashes human growth hormone, which helps you burn fat and maintain muscle, after just 10 to 30 seconds of high-intensity exercise. High-intensity exercise also appears to help curb your appetite and trigger hormones that regulate feelings of hunger and fullness better than lower-intensity exercise, so you’re less likely to overeat.
Keep It Controlled to Lose Belly Fat
Yes. We just told you to go hard to burn off unwanted belly fat—but like we mentioned, don’t overdo it. Going hard all the time stresses your body and leaves you chronically inflamed, which can backfire by contributing to belly-fat storage. Cap the intensity to a couple times a week and take the rest of your weekly rides at a controlled, comfortable pace.
Most recreational cyclists are doing too much high intensity training, and they’re not getting leaner or faster.
Many of your rides should be in Zone 2. That’s an intensity where you can talk the whole time—about a five to six on that 1-to-10 scale.
This is usually the intensity that elicits the highest fat oxidation for energy purposes.
These rides are not only good for burning fat, but also for building your slow-twitch, endurance muscle fibers, increasing capillary development, improving your ability to use lactate for energy, and making you a better fat-burner all the way around.
Use the 80/20 Rule to Lose Belly Fat
A number of coaches prescribe what is known as the “80/20 rule,” also called polarized training, for balancing training intensity. It’s definitely worth a try for burning off belly fat as well as for getting fitter and faster.
The goal is to spend 80 percent of riding time at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate to hard intensity. That way, when it’s time to go hard, you have the freshness and energy reserves to go hard enough to maximize those interval efforts.
Hitting both intensities actually improves your abilities all around: Your slow-twitch muscle fibers do the work of recycling the lactate your high-intensity, fast-twitch fibers produce. So when you spend time building them, the payoff is being able to work harder at high intensity—which in turn stimulates more fat burning.
Research shows this intensity combo also makes you faster. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found that when cyclists performed six weeks of 80/20-style training, they more than doubled their power and performance gains, such as lactate threshold, compared to when they spent more time in moderate training zones.
Include Fasted Riding to Lose Belly Fat
Turn up your fat burning by starting two or three rides each week fasted. Just do your normal ride, but start on an empty stomach (you can drink black coffee or tea).
If you’re riding for more than two hours, take food with you—the goal isn’t to bonk—and begin eating at the 2-hour mark. Fasted riding is a tried and true way to help your body burn more fat. It’s easiest to do before breakfast after you’ve fasted all night long and your glycogen stores are low, so your body needs to tap into fat for fuel.
Commute to Work to Lose Belly Fat
Even small bike trips deliver fat-burning benefits over time. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health reported that people who started commuting by bike for as little as 10 minutes each way lost a couple of pounds and improved their BMIs over a span of two years.
Those whose commutes were at least 30 minutes each way saw significant weight and BMI improvements, losing about 15 pounds and reducing their BMIs and average of 2.25 points over the same time period.