Aerobic exercise is an important way to maintain your health and vitality. If you’re new to exercising or have an injury or health condition that’s forcing you to change your exercise routine, you may wonder what type of aerobic exercise to choose.
Cycling and walking are two of the most popular types of aerobic activity. Both can be adapted for beginners or people with injuries or other health conditions.
They both provide a lower impact activity than other aerobic activities, such as running or jumping rope. Also, you can do them both outdoors or indoors, making them accessible no matter what the weather is like.
However, they tend to differ in terms of cost. Cycling obviously requires a bike, while all you need to start walking is a pair of shoes (or not) and the will to move.
Still, you may wonder which is the better workout and which is better for your health.
How many calories you burn with cycling and walking depends on your workout intensity. The following table shows approximately how many calories a 150-pound (68-kg) person would burn in a 30-minute session (1, 2).
|Intensity||Biking (calories and speed)||Walking (calories and speed)|
|Light||240 calories — 10–11.9 miles per hour (16–19.15 km/hr)||154 calories — 3.5 miles per hour (5.6 km/hr)|
|Moderate||285 calories — 12–13.9 miles per hour (19.3–22.4 km/hr)||179 calories — 4.0 miles per hour (6.4 km/hr)|
|High||357 calories — 14–15.9 miles per hour (22.5–25.6 km/hr)||250 calories — 4.5 miles per hour (7.2 km/hr)|
Thus, cycling tends to burn more calories for the same category of intensity during the same time period. You can think of the intensity as the rate of perceived exertion (
If you want to burn calories and you’re short on time, cycling may be the better option.
Cycling burns more calories given the same time and intensity as walking.
Cycling and walking involve using many of the same muscles to produce force to move. The gluteal muscles of the hip and hamstrings are involved in power production in both walking and cycling.
These muscles increase their activation when you increase your speed during cycling, especially when you stand up to pedal. In addition, gluteal activation increases when you walk uphill or up stairs (
The quadriceps (knee extensors) are involved to a larger extent in cycling compared with walking. They are larger producers of force during the power or push-down phase of cycling when you’re sitting down (
Finally, the calf muscles (soleus and gastrocnemius) play an important role in both cycling and walking. They are the muscles that propel you in the push phase of cycling and the push-off phase of walking (mid-stance to pre-swing phases) (
Thus, both activities work the same muscles, but cycling tends to require the muscles to exert more force.
Cycling and walking use many of the same muscles to produce force and movement. However, cycling tends to work your muscles harder.
When comparing the effects of cycling and walking on fat metabolism, one study found that walking increased fat metabolism more than cycling. Participants performed both forms of exercise at the same intensity or rate of perceived exertion (
Another study found that weight-bearing exercises, such as walking and running, were associated with lower levels of a type of fat that accumulates in bone marrow, compared with cycling (
Walking burns more fat than cycling. This may be because it’s considered a weight-bearing activity, while cycling isn’t.
In a study on muscular strength and hypertrophy, cycling was associated with increased strength.
One study found that cycling increased strength and muscle hypertrophy. This effect was greater in older adults than younger adults. However, younger adults could achieve this at a higher intensity (
There don’t appear to be many studies on whether and how walking increases strength in healthy younger adults.
However, one study found older sedentary individuals had increased strength after they took up walking (
Younger individuals may have to cycle at a higher intensity to have the same effect.
Cycling may help you gain more strength compared with walking. However, more research is needed.
Weight loss involves increasing the number of calories you burn compared with the number you eat per day. One main way to do this is to increase your activity levels while sensibly limiting how many calories you take in.
As the table above shows, cycling tends to burn more calories in the same time period compared with walking (1, 2).
Thus, cycling may be the better choice if you want to lose weight but don’t have a lot of time for exercise.
Nevertheless, the wisest choice is to do the activity you enjoy more along with controlling the number of calories you eat. Your exercise may be cycling or walking, or a combination of the two. Doing both can add variety and increase your chances of sticking with a program.
Cycling may be better for weight loss if you have a limited amount of time to work out. However, both types of exercise can help with weight loss as long as you manage your diet.
Injuries are a common part of life. They can be debilitating and make it difficult for you to exercise. Finding an activity that you can do to stay active when you’re injured is important. However, that may depend on the injury.
For instance, one study reported a high incidence of low back pain in cyclists. Road cycling involves being in a flexed trunk posture for prolonged periods.
However, a recent study in people with chronic low back pain showed that walking reduced pain, disability, and avoidance of activities (
Studies have shown that walking and cycling both helped people manage pain associated with knee osteoarthritis. Thus, both can be good activities to perform for joint pain due to arthritis.
However, if you have other causes of joint pain, you might find one activity more comfortable than another (
If you experience pain when you’re doing weight-bearing activities, such as walking, cycling may offer a more tolerable way to exercise. However, if you find the bent position of cycling more painful, walking may be a better alternative.
Speak with a healthcare professional, such as a family doctor, if you want to start walking or cycling and have injuries or other health conditions. They will help you choose the exercise that best suits your needs.
Both cycling and walking are lower impact activities and can be good to perform if you have injuries. However, be sure to choose the one that feels best for any injuries you have.
Cycling tends to benefit people who:
- have less time to exercise
- enjoy a faster pace
For example, cycling at a moderate pace tends to burn more calories than does walking at a moderate pace. In addition, cycling offers a chance for you to increase your lower-body strength.
However, if you find cycling unenjoyable or uncomfortable due to back pain or even experience discomfort when sitting for prolonged periods, you might prefer to avoid it.
Walking is beneficial if you have:
- bone density issues, such as osteoporosis
- back pain
- limited funds to invest in a bike and related bike gear
However, walking may not be better for all types of pain. You may find cycling is more comfortable for you if you have pain that gets worse in weight-bearing or upright positions.
Cycling can be better for burning more calories, and it helps increase your lower-body strength. On the other hand, walking may help with bone density and tends to cost less than cycling.
Both cycling and walking provide an excellent workout and are more low impact than other forms of exercise.
If you’re not sure which to choose, consider trying both and seeing which one you find more comfortable and enjoyable. Even if you don’t have a bike, it may benefit you to rent or borrow one and see how it feels.
And which one is easiest to perform? That depends on your situation. You can probably walk almost anywhere, even in your own house or at a mall.
Cycling can be very convenient if it replaces your commute to work, but it’s not so convenient if you have to take your bike on a car or public transit to get to a place where you can bike, for instance.
Consider what’s easiest for you to build into your existing routine.
Finally, do you have friends that walk or bike? Having other people to exercise with may make it easier for you to stick to an activity.
Choose depending on which activity you prefer, which is easiest to incorporate into your life, and whether there are people you can walk or cycle with who might help motivate you to get moving.
Cycling and walking are excellent forms of exercise. They can be challenging and enjoyable for everyone, from beginners to experts.
Both burn calories and are good alternative forms of exercise if you have a medical condition or are injured from another type of exercise or sport.
Cycling may benefit you if you have less time to exercise and want to optimize burning calories or increase your strength.
Walking may be more beneficial if you think you could benefit from weight-bearing exercise and are unable or unwilling to spend money on a bicycle and related gear.
The good news is, choosing either type of exercise is great for your health — either way you win.