There is a lot to like about the potential for bikes equipped with small motors that boost the power of the human pedal stroke to attract more people to commuting on two wheels. Still, scientific evidence that riding electric-assist bikes can improve health has been wanting. But a study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, reveals a positive connection between commuting by electric-assist bike and gains in health and fitness.
The study, published by the European Journal of Applied Physiology enlisted 20 volunteers who had not been exercising and instructed them to ride to work on electric-assist bikes. The study looked only at bicycles that require the rider to pedal continuously in order to receive the benefit of the power from the motor. These are also known as pedelecs, and are not to be confused with bikes equipped with throttles, which do all the work for the rider.
The key question: Could riding electric-assist bikes make a meaningful difference in fitness among the previously sedentary. Funding was provided by the City of Boulder, which was considering whether or not to allow e-bikes onto certain municipal bike paths, plus several local bike shops and a maker of sports nutrition products.
The study volunteers underwent baseline lab tests and then were given electric-assist bikes, GPS devices and heart rate monitors and instructed to ride to work, at their own pace and intensity levels, three times a week for 40 minutes a day.
A month later, lab tests revealed gains in cardiovascular health, including increased aerobic capacity and improved blood sugar control, according to the authors of the study. All participants had completed the required rides, with some even beating the requirement by up to 50 percent. Elevations in the volunteers’ heart rates revealed intensity in their pedaling comparable to brisk walking or easy jogging. (There were no accidents or injuries to the riders or anyone else.)
The results also highlight the advantage of combining transportation and exercise into a single effort, lowering two oft-cited barriers to physical activity — lack of fitness and lack of time.
“Commuting with a pedelec can help individuals incorporate physical activity into their day without requiring them to set aside time specifically for exercise,” noted James Peterman, a graduate researcher in the Department of Integrative Physiology at CU Boulder and lead author, in an announcement of the findings.
And here’s the kicker. The participants reported having fun with this form of exercise, Peterman told The New York Times. A physical activity people consider pleasurable is worthy of attention in an age when more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese (with rates among women trending upwards) and 80 percent of Americans not getting the recommended amount of exercise.
Currently, electric-assist bikes occupy a gray area in NYC related to inconsistencies in how motorized vehicles are classified and in rules at the federal, state and local levels — all of which make for confusion among consumers and potential enforcement issues among police officers. Cycling advocates hope that legislation re-introduced in Albany this year will help provide clarity, as has, for example, a recent law passed in California.
Electric-assist bikes aren’t a silver bullet – they are relatively expensive and riding non-motorized bikes still provides greater health benefits. But these machines offer people who may want to get started with bike commuting or who face hills or longer commutes not only health and fitness benefits, but also travel convenience and efficiency in congested urban settings. The Boulder study should be considered a step on the road toward making these bikes an unambiguous option for more city dwellers.
Photo: Elby bikes