You might have some friends who sign up for races on the reg. They know their half-marathon pace versus their sprint speed, and they have the medals to prove their stellar performances. You might also have friends who talk two-wheelers all the time, either memorizing their pace to beat in spin class or buying the best bike gear to cruise around town. The question is: Which camp do you fall in—or do you want to fall in?
Of course, you don’t need to pick sides. You can easily play for both teams. But if you’re looking to start a regular cardio routine, and you’re not sure which one is best to kick off your fitness, then look no further. Trainers and research have something to say about which activity might be a more effective workout for you.
What are some pros and cons of running?
Running recruits more muscles, which might mean it ups the energy burn, says Astrid Swan, NASM-certified celebrity trainer and instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp. While running works the legs, you also need your core and upper body to get in on the action.
Running burns 566 to 839 calories an hour
In addition to improving your cardio and crushing calories, running provides some pretty hefty pay-offs for your overall health. “Running has a lot of long-term benefits,” says Swan. “The load of running will put ‘good stress’ on the body and help prevent bone loss and osteoporosis. It’s also a great form of exercise to strengthen your heart and increase your metabolism.”
Research backs up the idea of running toward better bone health. Though small, one study found that stress-bearing physical activity (aka running) protects your skeleton even more than non-weight bearing work (say, cycling).
Running also costs zero dollars. You just need a pair of solid running shoes. So it’s a solid choice if you want exercise that’s easy on the wallet. “Running is something that can come naturally—simply take one step at a time,” says Swan. (Biking does take some skill after all, at least if you’re riding outside.) It’s also an easy activity to work into your schedule no matter where you are. If you travel a lot, it’s simple to slip into some sneakers and hit the road.
Of course, running is often associate with injuries: shin splints, stress fractures, and knee pain, to name a few. Since running is a high-impact activity, it’s super important to pay attention to how your body is feeling, says Swan, who strongly believes that most injuries can be avoided if you pay attention.
And what about the pros and cons of cycling?
“One of the great things about cycling is that it’s low impact on the joints of the body, so it’s a great way to kickstart your fitness journey,” says Olivia Amato, NASM-certified trainer, and Peloton Bike and Tread instructor. If you have a knee injury or need to stay away from high-impact activities, riding provides the perfect cardio substitute for something like running, while still giving you a similar calorie burn and cardio advantages.
Cycling burns 498 to 738 calories an hour
What’s more, Swan says cycling tends to build more muscles (at least in the legs), as you work against resistance and use those glutes and quads to push your pace.
Another plus on the biking list: You can cover a lot of ground, so it’s a solid way to commute to the office or grocery store or anywhere in between. And science shows how beneficial this can be for your health. A large study linked pedaling to work to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and overall mortality. (The same benefits apply to walking, too!) In other words, it could help you live longer and that’s a pretty big pro.
The obvious disadvantage to riding around comes down to cash, as cycling isn’t exactly a free sport. If you want to take a cycling class, you’ll likely shell out $15 to $35 per 45-minute session. And if you want to get rolling outside, you need an actual two-wheeler to do it. (Consider renting a bike for your first outdoor ride, then decide if you want to invest.) So if you’re watching your wallet, it might not be the best choice over running.
So, which is better?
The crucial factor when it comes to any exercise: You have to find something you actually enjoy and want to stick with. So, if you try running and just can’t find your footing, see how you feel about cycling. If you just can’t find your groove on two wheels, take up running.
Either way, you’ll get a great cardio workout. In fact, one study found that, if you work at the same effort (specifically, the same percentage of your VO2Max), you gain the same endurance boost from running and cycling. And both are ranked as some of the best calorie-burning exercises: Running generally burns 566 to 839 calories an hour, while cycling at a vigorous pace clocks 498 to 738 calories an hour, based on estimates by the American College of Sports Medicine.
Something else to note: The key to starting and building a lasting relationship with either exercise is to start slow, says Swan. “Don’t think you should get in three miles on day one, maybe don’t even try for one mile when you start,” she explains. “Build up your endurance and build up your stride.” Otherwise, you risk hating it just because it’s too hard—and you don’t want to get turned off from the sport before you even give it a solid chance.
“The hardest part truly is getting started,” says Amato. “Take pride in the fact that you showed up—for class, for yourself—because that’s always the most important step. No matter where you start, progress will come with time and effort.”
Bottom line: Cycling and running offer similar cardiovascular and calorie-burn benefits. Choose the workout that suits your interests and lifestyle.
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