The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its Physical Activities Guidelines for Americans in 2008.
In updating the Guidelines ten years later, HHS reconfirmed (among other things) its original recommendation that adults should engage in at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week (preferably spread throughout the week). Unfortunately, the Guidelines reported that as of 2016, only 26% of men and 19% of women (ages 18 to 64) met the recommendations for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise. The proportion of older adults (65 and older) who met the Guidelines was also very low (about 27% based on 2011-2012 data).
E-Bikes to the Rescue
When older adults are asked why they do not engage in aerobic exercise, many respond that they are not sufficiently fit to start an exercise program. Electric bikes – also known as e-bikes – may be a healthy and fun solution. E-bikes are equipped with a small electric motor and a battery to assist a rider. As the name implies, pedal-assist e-bikes provide additional power when the rider is pedaling. In contrast, throttle-assist e-bikes provide power even when the rider is not pedaling (throttle-assist e-bikes are thus more like a moped than a bicycle).
For many years, e-bikes were primarily considered to be a novelty product. Although the first patent for an electrically assisted bike was filed in 1895, e-bikes generally were not commercially available until the early 1990s. Since then, technical innovations in lithium-ion batteries, lower retail prices, and more powerful motors have combined to create significant growth in the e-bike market. Deloitte predicts that more than 130 million e-bikes will be sold between 2020 and 2023, with worldwide sales of over 40 million e-bikes in 2023 alone (representing approximately $20 billion in revenue). While e-bikes represented less than 1% of all bike sales in 2012, e-mountain bikes (e-MTB) are expected to account for over 30% of all mountain bikes sales in 2020.
The Health Benefits of E-Bikes
Utah attorney Greg Bishop recommends that older adults who are looking to increase their cardiovascular fitness and improve their overall health should consider joining the e-bike craze. He notes that not only are e-bikes fun to ride, but those who use them regularly will increase their fitness and improve their overall health. Bishop explains:
- A small 2016 Colorado study found that commuting on an e-bike for a month increased new riders’ fitness and improved their blood sugar levels. Interestingly, the participants enjoyed using the e-bikes so much that most of them spent considerably more time riding them than they had committed to do as part of the study
- A 2017 Norwegian study determined that despite the electronic assist, e-bike riders are physically active for 95% of their riding time. Indeed, e-bike riders are 8.5 times more active when riding than when they are static, compared to full-pedal cyclists who are 10.9 time more active than when static
- A 2018 Swiss study concluded that e-bike riding had comparable health benefits to regular cycling. Specifically, after a four-week program involving overweight volunteers, the improvements to the e-bike riders’ cardiorespiratory fitness were nearly identical to those in the control group (who rode conventional bicycles)
- A 2019 Utah study compared the physical exertion expended by volunteers who rode the same course using both e-MTBs and traditional mountain bikes. Remarkably, the average heart rate of test subjects riding an e-bike was 94% of those riding conventional mountain bikes. More importantly, both rides were sufficient to trigger vigorous-intensity in terms of aerobic conditioning, despite the riders’ perceptions that riding the e-bikes was much easier. Researchers concluded that riding an electric bike is an “excellent form of aerobic or cardiovascular exercise, even for experienced mountain bikers who regularly engage in this fitness activity.”
In short, Greg Bishop suggests that e-bikes can help get older adults involved in doing things that they may have thought were too intimidating or difficult for them to do. Therefore, the bikes can be an essential catalyst in improving their cardiovascular fitness and overall health.