Cycling vs running: Which is better for losing weight and getting fit?

From the calorie-burning difference between cycling vs running to the impact on heart health, this is what coaches want you to know before you choose

Woman looking down at exercise bike in spinning studio wearing activewear and considering cycling vs running
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cycling versus running - it's the debate that many people have when trying to choose between just one of these popular activities. While they are very similar in many ways, both being cardio exercise, your workout goals may make one more suitable than the other. 

Either way, you can do both running and cycling outdoors in the fresh air or inside on a bike or treadmill. They both offer great heart health-boosting benefits and time away from the the stress of the day, giving you the opportunity to reset. So, how do you choose between the two?

Whether you're looking to decide between doing cycling as a workout or trying to learn how to start running as a beginner, we've got you covered. Here, woman&home speaks to two certified coaches to reveal the individual benefits of each activity and how to choose the best one for you. 

Cycling vs running

For burning calories

Generally speaking, taking up a running for weight loss program will help you burn more calories in a shorter space of time than cycling. It does hugely depend on personal factors like weight, age, and gender, along with the intensity and duration of the workout but according to the American Council on Exercise, there is a big difference in calorie burn at the end of the day. 

The Council suggests that a person weighing 140 pounds will burn 6.4 calories per minute cycling, compared to 13.2 calories per minute running.

Group of people running down path in green park space

(Image credit: Getty Images)

For losing weight

While running may burn more calories per minute, cycling may be a better option for those looking to lose weight without exercising excessively. As a low-impact workout that's gentle on the joints and doesn't tend to spike the heart rate as rapidly, you're likely going to be able to cycle for longer than you can run. 

Running 30 minutes a day may burn more calories than cycling for 30 minutes but you're more likely to cycle for an hour than run for an hour, especially if you're new to working out, which is going to burn more calories in the long run. Classes like spinning for weight loss can also offer the same amount of cardio activity as running, thanks to the intervals of low and high-intensity exercise, in less time. 

However, if you want to lose weight, forget the cycling vs running debate. The most effective exercise will be the one you enjoy the most and can find the motivation to do it most often as it's doing the exercise that will help you get into a calorie deficit to lose weight. Running might burn more calories per minute than cycling for some people, but if you dislike it so much that you never head out the door in the first place, you'll stay put at square one. 

“Both are very effective at helping you to achieve and maintain a healthy weight,” agrees Sage Figueroa, a fitness trainer specializing in pre-and post-natal fitness, including cycling and running. “Neither one has been proven to be more effective than the other and there is a misconception that exercise has to feel like a punishment to get results. The real results come when we shift our perspective and treat exercise like a gift, a privilege to spend time with yourself.” 

Figueroa, who also works with Echelon as the lead trainer in the UK, instead suggests finding “a consistent, low-impact, moderate pace, 20 to 30 minutes a day” worth of exercise you enjoy, instead of trying to do something you don’t like. She says, “This can get you the results you’re looking for, especially if you’re new to fitness.”

For improving your fitness

Looking to know how to get fit with running or cycling? Which one will be better for you all depends on your lifestyle, says triathlon coach Rosie Weston. “As cycling will often be less intensive than running, it’s dependent on whether you want to prioritize a less intensive yet longer aerobic workout like cycling, or focus on a shorter yet more intensive workout like running.”

If you’re short on time, then running may be better for cardio exercise. “For an individual to get a similar benefit from cycling vs running, the general ratio is 1 mile of running to 3 miles of cycling,” says Weston, who is also an INCUS-supported professional triathlete herself. 

However, she adds, both provide very similar aerobic cardio benefits. “It can also be down to what equipment is available and other factors, such as time available and weather conditions. Both of these activities can be performed indoors in gyms or at home with the help of treadmills, smart turbo trainers, or Wattbikes, that can help individuals track progress. This can also provide an easier introduction for beginners.”

Three women standing together with bikes comparing watches and phones for distance, after weighing up the benefits of cycling versus running

(Image credit: Getty Images)

For building strength

“In general terms, cycling is better for building muscles in the lower body with less impact to the joints,” says Weston, so if you’re looking for a cardio alternative to strength training, take this as your sign to dust off the bike in the garage. 

If you’re looking to achieve more muscle definition, rather than make them bigger, running could be a better option. “It provides a more cardiovascular-based workout but at a slightly higher intensity as it works for more muscle groups,” she says.

For improving balance

The saying goes that practice makes perfect and there are few better ways to practice balancing and hand-eye coordination skills than cycling. Even if you don't cycle on busy roads, taking a hand off the handlebars to indicate when you want to turn, your balance is improved by simply riding. 

When we ride a bike, we actually use a lot of the muscles around our stomach to maintain stability. These muscles are an essential part of the body's stabilizing system so strengthening by cycling can help to improve our balance - both on and off the bike. 

There's even research to prove it. A study linked to the Sydney School of Public Health found that older adults who take up cycling for just one hour a week tend to have much better balance (and stronger legs, another key part of the body for balance) than those who don't. 

For moving your muscles

In terms of how many muscles these exercises use comparatively, running is the winner as it utilizes more of the lower body muscles - including the hamstrings, glutes, calves, quadriceps, and hip flexor muscles. Cycling isn't too far off though since power mainly comes through the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.

If you just want to move your muscles to feel all the benefits of exercise, either running or cycling works well. With research from multiple institutions, including a study by the University of New York, showing that getting our muscles moving does wonders for our mental and emotional health, there are plenty of other reasons to exercise other than cycling or running’s physical benefits. 

You need to be comfortable to get the most out of your workout though, so consider this when weighing up cycling vs running. Cycling will have less impact on your joints, so if you suffer from any kind of joint pain or want to move for longer periods, cycling may be a better fit. However, if you don’t experience any joint pain and have invested in the best running shoes to see you through your workout safely, then a jog may be a better option for you. 

This doesn't mean you should cycle or run every single day though, and if you’re ever in doubt about the effect that exercise could have on your body specifically, speak to your doctor.

On the whole, on the debate of cycling vs running, Weston says: “Both cycling and running are great for fitness in their own respective right. Both can help generate a great cardiovascular base for fitness and improve muscular strength, dependent on the level of intensity the exercise is performed at.”

Is cycling better than running?

Cycling is easier on the joints than running as it doesn't have the same foot-to-ground impact, so it may be a better choice for those who experience joint pain or are new to exercise. However, it does require you to have access to a bike - which can be expensive if you have to buy one - and safety essentials. Running is physically more intense, even at a slower pace, but it does tend to burn more calories and requires less kit to get going. Many of the best workout apps, like Nike Run Club, are also free for running activities.

"In terms of deciding between cycling vs running, I'd say it's much for much," concludes Figueroa. "Neither one requires you to overthink your workout plan.  Exercise is here to enhance your lifestyle, not take away from it so give yourself that five, ten, or 20-minute boost." 

Grace Walsh
Health Channel Editor

Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer.

A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.