Riding a motorcycle feels active. You’re outdoors, you’re alert, and you’re moving your body. So is riding a motorcycle exercise? How does it compare to going for a walk or riding a bike? Let’s analyse it in detail.
I’ve seen this for a long time in my riding career, people say “motorcycling is exercise!” an excuse to go riding, as well as more recently as an excuse to go outside amid a lock-down.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Motorcycling has nowhere near the exercise benefits of going for a run, doing an interval training class, or lifting some weights.
But motorcycling does have some physical benefits, and these are worth exploring and understanding.
Are you obsessed with motorcycles?
Well, I am. That’s why I created this site — as an outlet. I love learning and sharing what others might find useful. If you like what you read here, and you’re a fraction as obsessed as I am, you might like to know when I’ve published more. (Check the latest for an idea of what you’ll see.)
What is “exercise”?
Exercise is any physical movement which is for the sake of getting you fitter and not for any other purpose.
Even though people have trained since ancient times (for the war, competitions, and so on), exercise for the sake of exercise is more recent. Most people attribute the start of it to the “Father of Gymnastics”, a German educator known as Friedrich Jahn.
In the early 1800s, Jahn extended on an old theory that the best way to defend against a military attack was not to give everyone weapons, but to help ordinary people be stronger. So Jahn took his people (the Germans) into the countryside and made them exercise to toughen them up.
But Jahn’s excursions had an unexpected effect: people enjoyed the exercise!
Since then, exercise has grown as a pastime as well as a scientifically proven way to live longer and better.
These days, exercising means
- Getting stronger (through weight training)
- Improving heart fitness (through intense movement)
- Increasing endurance (keeping output out for a long time)
- Improving mobility (by stretching, holding postures)
- Getting better coordination (gymnastics, sports, dance)
- Developing mental condition (learning new skills, pushing through pain barriers)
Also, sometimes exercise is just for “looking good naked”. But most people agree that “abs are made in the kitchen”.
Is riding a motorcycle exercise? Four surprising benefits of motorcycling
Looking at exercise from the above perspective, motorcycling (by which I mean everyday road riding, mildly sporty perhaps) doesn’t score many points. You’re not getting stronger or working your heart too hard. But it’s not all bad!
There are four specific reasons you could consider motorcycling to be a form of exercise:
- Motorcycling will make you improve your co-ordination — as you balance between shifting gears, playing with the brakes, and controlling your balance
- Motorcycling improves your mental condition — you’ll always be learning more, learning to think ahead, anticipate more complex situations — you’re basically constantly problem solving
- You’ll definitely burn more calories than sitting on a sofa — roughly like going for a walk (see the next section)
- You’ll earn mental therapy from riding (unless it’s in traffic). The meditative effect of a country ride is what keeps many riders like me going.
But let’s not forget that motorcycling doesn’t take the place of regular exercise. Here’s why:
- Motorcycling won’t make you stronger… unless you happen to drop your bike a lot
- The moderate heart rate of everyday road riding) won’t increase your cardiovascular fitness (neither in short sprints nor endurance)
- You won’t improve your mobility through motorcycling
On balance, motorcycling is definitely far better than nothing. It’s crazy to suggest that it’s not exercising you in some way. In a world where many people live sedentary lifestyles, motorcycling is definitely one up on staying on the sofa in the house.
Motorcycling isn’t a replacement for running, playing sports, swimming, or lifting weights.
But we can’t be doing those things all the time. So get outside, ride, and know that on balance it’s good for you.
How many calories do you burn motorcycling?
Firstly, the calorie burn of motorcycling is definitely not zero. Even sleeping, we burn 40-55 calories an hour, and more when we’re sitting up.
We obviously get hungry just from sitting at a desk and doing work. It’s hard to disassociate how much of that is actually needing energy from just getting bored, restless, stressed, or anxious (all causes of hunger), but we definitely do need to eat — even if lying in bed in hospital.
The amount of food we need to eat increases (generally) the more active we are.
A good benchmark, I think, is going for a walk. I generally get tired going for a long walk, partly from the strain on my legs, and partly from the exertion. A brisk walk (especially up a hill) raises my heart rate, more so than does motorcycling. So I roughly equate motorcycling with going for a walk.
This makes rough sense to me. When riding a motorcycle I am remaining active. I have to
- Maintain a straight back (so I don’t hurt it)
- Keep weight off my wrists by keeping my core slightly taut and my knees pressing slightly on the tank
- Continually adjust steering by shifting my body and pressing on the controls
- Remain alert — always watching and adjusting
Remaining alert in itself uses energy. People who have rider aids like traction control and cruise control often say they can get to the end of a long trip feeling fresh. On the other hand, if you’re trying to keep a fidgety sportbike under the speed limit, you get much more tired more quickly. Thinking burns calories — not as much as squatting for reps, but still more than zero.
So what’s the calorie burn of walking? A few sources say different things.
I’ll base the following on a 85kg/180lb rider. Riders come in many shapes and sizes, but from the factory, I often read in manuals that suspension is set up for a 85kg rider, so that’s what I’ll base this on.
You multiply the burn up or down depending on the weight. E.g. if you’re 42.5kg, halve the calorie burn.
- Mayo Clinic: 360 calories (based on 3.5mph)
- Harvard Health: 356 (at 3.5mph)
- GoodHousekeeping: 255 calories/hour (3 mph or 5km/h moderate pace)
- VerywellHealth: 287 calories (~100 calories/mile, equivalent to 300 calories/hour at 3mph or 5 km/h)
So when you ride a motorcycle you probably burn the same calories (roughly) as a brisk walk — around 200-300 calories/hour, depending on your weight.
That’s a burger and fries (about a thousand calories) every three hours. Eat up!
Modifiers: How comfortable is your motorcycle?
There are, of course, different types of motorcycle. Some are more comfortable than others.
One friend of mine with a Harley-Davidson Dyna describes his motorcycle as “the most comfortable chair I own”.
Many on the Facebook group Long Distance Motorcycle Riders cite a drink holder as the most important long-distance riding accessory.
I put it to you that if you sit on a comfortable chair with a drink holder, you might not be burning many more calories than if you were staying on your sofa.
On the other hand, enduro-style motorcycle riding is — I’m told (haven’t tried yet) — hard work. It’s even part of the training regime of MotoGP racers like Marc Marquez. So if you’re riding enduro, then yes, riding a motorcycle is exercise.
Riding off-road means frequently standing on your pegs and using more of your body to turn and adjust the balance of the bike
Motorcycle riders to ride off-road or enduro don’t often tackle the hard stuff for very long at a time. Riding off-road certainly seems much closer to active exercise!
Then of course there’s racing — for which you need to have a lot of physical fitness to do well. Marc Marquez, a multi-MotoGP champion, places a huge amount of importance on fitness. Other riders do too, but they get less of the limelight, of course.
A bit about me and fitness
Just for context… I’m not a professional fitness trainer, but I am a fitness nerd. I’ve been obsessive about Crossfit, weight training and diet, and dabbled in distance running and yoga.
I can deadlift 405 lbs (“four plates”, or 184 kg), squat 330 lbs (150 kg), press 265 lbs (120kg), do hand-stand push-ups, run 5km in 25 mins (pretty average), string together muscle-ups, and do 616 push-ups in an hour (I once tried). So I’m pretty fit myself, if that counts for anything.
I’ve read a lot about fitness and spoken to a lot of trainers, coming “this close” to becoming one. I still am that close!
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that’s as true in fitness as anywhere. I don’t like to spread rumours or make things up. Fitness is full of “bro-science” already and I won’t contribute to that.
So this article is quite general and addresses concepts of fitness and exercise from many walks of life — hopefully, the truth lies somewhere between all of it.