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Norwegian study quantifies exercise benefits of electric bikes

Researchers at a Norwegian university have undertaken a study to better understand the intensity of exercise a cyclist gets from pedalling an e-bike (set to maximum motor assistance) compared to an ordinary cycle.

“Everybody knows that cycling is a great physical activity but we wondered what exercise a person gets on an e-bike, as these have become so popular. Could they be too easy? This is what we wanted to find out,” says Elling Bere, a professor at the Faculty of Public Health, Sport and Nutrition at the University of Agder.

Eight participants – six men and two women between the ages of 23 and 54 – were asked to cycle one flat route and one hilly route, once on a conventional 12Kg cycle and the second time on an electric bike.

The 27Kg 250w rated Rixe electric bike was set in a mode to give maximum motor assistance.

Bere explained to Pedelecs: “It was two different trips, to and from the same destination, simulating commuting to work. A shorter and more hilly one (7.1 km) and a longer more flat one (8.1 km). Every participant cycled both trips on both the e-bike and a traditional bike.”

The objectives of the study were to compare an electric bike with a conventional one on the time spent cycling overall, how much of that time was spent in moderate physical activity (MPA) and how much in vigorous physical activity (VPA) and at what point those levels of exercise intensity were recorded across the differing terrains of the two routes.

The study recorded oxygen consumption as a measurement of activity using a portable analyzer with GPS. Additional tests measured maximum cardiorespiratory fitness and resting metabolic rates of the participants.

When asked about the average fitness of those taking part, Bere explained that: “Median VO2max (maximal oxygen uptake) was 45, which is above average, so participants were in general rather fit.”

The resulting paper shows that all of the participants were engaged in either moderate or vigorous physical activity 95% of the time, with the electric bike cyclists 8.5 times more active than when resting, as opposed to 10.9 times on an ordinary cycle.

The researchers were surprised by a smaller difference in oxygen consumption than they expected. While the e-bike cyclists used an average of 51% of their lung capacity, that figure was only slightly higher at 58% for cycling without assistance.

The electric bike, as would be expected, was 29% faster on the hilly route compared to the ordinary cycle, with a shorter journey time meaning both less time spent exercising on a route of fixed length in addition to less exertion tackling climbs than using leg power alone. Lower intensity exercise was therefore recorded by e-cyclists compared to ordinary cycles on uphill routes; when measured as a percentage of VO2 these figures were: e-bike 55%, conventional bicycle 73%.

Bere says he was surprised by the overall results however; he expected the difference in exercise levels to be more pronounced between the e-bike and the unassisted cycle for the duration of all tested rides.

He adds that while reaching moderate activity levels can be avoided by pedaling at a more leisurely pace, the study’s participants were told to “cycle like they would if they were going to work.” Although the researchers say that a “drawback of the study is that participants knew they were engaged in an experiment and this could have skewed the results” by unconsciously cycling with a higher intensity than they normally would – it does show the exercise benefits of the e-bike in this study, even with maximum assistance, were not trailing in the distance behind ordinary cycles.

“The conclusion is that e-cycling is a good form of physical activity and I think many will be surprised to hear it. At least I was. I expected a much greater difference between conventional and electricity assisted bicycling. If more people stop driving cars and start using e-bikes to their jobs it would have a positive effect on public health.” said Bere,

The study was undertaken to better understand how the growing popularity of electric bikes can increase physical activity in a society where too many adults are considered insufficiently active, with the health benefits of electric bikes for commuting purposes being a particular focus point of this study.