Riding an e-bike isn't cheating after all

by Ruth Nichol / 29 August, 2016
E-bikes are easier to ride than regular ones, but they still improve fitness levels – and are cheap to run.

Various types of e-bike.The first time Deborah East rode her electric bike (e-bike) up Wellington’s Brooklyn Hill, she could hardly make it to the top. These days, the long-time real estate agent can zoom up the hill – and other, steeper slopes – in second gear, despite suffering from arthritis in her hips and knees.

“I still pedal and it still hurts, but using an e-bike means it’s feasible to ride up hills, whereas I wouldn’t be cycling at all otherwise. It’s enabled me to do something that keeps me fit. ”

East cycled a lot as a teenager in Christchurch, and again in her late thirties and early forties, but eventually she found Wellington’s hills too challenging. That all changed when she discovered e-bikes a couple of years ago. Now she’s an enthusiast; she rides her e-bike whenever she can, including to customer meetings. Pedalling along the city streets with the help of a small electric motor means she can make good time without breaking a sweat.

“I cycle in my business clothes and when I walk into the meeting no one can tell I didn’t drive.”

Various types of e-bike. Various types of e-bike.

E-bikes have many other things to recommend them. Parking is a breeze, they’re cheap to run – “my vehicle expenses are way down” – and they’re much better for the environment than cars.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that e-bikes are starting to take off both here and overseas. In China, sales of e-bikes increased from 300,000 in 2000 to 30 million in 2012, and in Europe sales grew by more than a quarter between January and September last year.

Many e-bike buyers are like East, one-time cyclists who developed slothful habits as they got older. And they, too, are finding that although e-bikes are easier to ride than regular ones, it still requires effort and helps build fitness.

That’s been backed up by a new study from the University of Colorado at Boulder, which has provided some of the first scientific data about the health benefits of e-bikes. Researchers did an experiment with 20 sedentary Boulder residents, giving each of them an e-bike with instructions to ride it at whatever speed and intensity they liked for at least 40 minutes, three times a week, while wearing a heart monitor and a GPS device.

Various types of e-bike. Various types of e-bike.

Tests at the start of the experiment and a month later found that all the participants had significantly greater aerobic fitness, improved cardiovascular health and better blood sugar control. They also clocked up an average speed of 20km/h – respectable enough, but not so outrageously fast that they ended up crashing and hurting themselves.

Jim Peterman, who led the study, which was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, admits the researchers were surprised by the results, and particularly by the level of effort the participants put in – similar to brisk walking or an easy jog.

“They were actually exercising at a moderate intensity, which was a little bit of a surprise.”

What’s more, several of the previously inactive participants loved it so much they bought their own e-bikes once the experiment was over.

“I’ve been in contact with a couple of them and they’re still riding them and having a blast,” says Peterman.

The results also challenge the commonly held prejudice that riding an e-bike is cheating.

“There seems to be a view that e-bikers are not really trying at all – that they’re just sitting on a moped.”

As fellow researcher Bill Byrnes points out, it is possible to ride an e-bike with as much intensity as a standard bike, allowing you to cover a lot a ground very quickly. Or you can ride at a lower intensity – which means fewer physiological benefits – but still reach similar speeds to what you would on a regular bike.

Byrnes, who heads the university’s Applied Exercise Science Laboratory, uses his own e-bike in both ways, going hard-out on some days but opting for a gentler ride when he wants to avoid getting sweaty.

“That’s good if I have a meeting at school in the morning and I don’t have time to have a shower.”

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