Lately, I've seen some specious arguments that motorcycling is "exercise".

I've seen this for a long time in my riding career, as generally an excuse to go riding, as well as more recently as an excuse to go outside amid the 2020 pandemic's 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 (even if they're just milk jugs lying around).

But motorcycling does have some physical benefits, and these are worth exploring and understanding.

A bit about me and fitness

I'm not a professional fitness trainer... but I'm 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 the below is quite general and addresses concepts of fitness and exercise from many walks of life — hopefully, the truth lies somewhere between all of it.

What is "exercise"?

Surprisingly, exercise is a fairly recent phenomenon, only around 200 years old.

Well, obviously people have trained for things for many years — mostly for war, sports/competition, and at some point hunting.

But exercise for the sake of exercise (i.e. because it feels good) 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 incursion was to help all the German people get stronger. So, rather than give everyone weapons and train them as an emergency military (the good old way where everyone was a soldier), Jahn took Germans out into the countryside and taught them gymnastics and calisthenics to toughen them up.

But Jahn's excursions had an unexpected effect: people enjoyed the exercise! Since his time, other similar movements where someone tried to toughen others up for military purposes ended up being something people just enjoyed.

In the 20th century, the first scientific links between exercise and cardiovascular health and the ability to resist disease were made. (Before then, most civilisations generally knew that someone strong and healthy would be less likely to get sick, but the mass scientific studies are more recent.)

In modern times, "exercise" for the sake of general fitness has a number of overlapping meanings.

Exercise can be for the purpose of

  • Increasing physical strength (muscles and bones) — through resistance training like lifting weights, gymnastics, or using gym equipment
  • Increasing cardiovascular fitness — through intense movement (like sprinting) or interval training
  • Increasing endurance — sustaining moderate heart rate and muscle output for many hours (running, cycling, swimming)
  • Increasing mobility — stretching, holding postures (yoga, other calisthenics)
  • Improving coordination — moving your body where you want and when you want (through dance, gymnastics, practising sports)
  • Developing mental condition — learning new skills, pushing through pain and finding new mental limits, and learning to believe in yourself.

There's also an emerging trend of exercise being purely for the sake of looking good naked ("LGN-ing"). While exercise can lead to this, and looking good naked is an indicator that you're fit, you can be fit without having lean body fat of <10% — which is what you actually need to look "ripped". (You don't need to be fit at all!)

Different kinds of sports and training styles develop each of these to different points. Yoga is great for mobility, but wouldn't be most people's first choice for cardiovascular fitness.

Similarly, running is great for endurance and cardiovascular fitness, but it won't make you stronger past a certain point, nor more mobile.

What's the calorie burn of 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 is exhausting. 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 speet 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.

Standard BMW rider weight of 85 kg
My BMW motorcycle manual describing an 85 kg (187 lb) rider

You multiply the burn up or down depending on the weight. E.g. if you're 42.5kg, halve the calorie burn.

So a street motorcycle ride probably has the same calorie density as a midlely 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!

Is motorcycling exercise? Marc marquez trains for MotoGP
Marc Marquez posing mid push-up at the gym. All the way down, Marc!

Modifiers: How comfortable is your motorcycle?

There are, of course, different classes 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.

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.

Riding a huge harley davidson is probably not great exercise.
Riding a huge Harley is fun and comfortable, and definitely has less of a calorie burn than motocross.

So is motorcycling exercise?

Looking at exercise from the above perspective, motorcycling (by which I mean everyday road riding, mildly sporty perhaps) doesn't score many points. But it's not all bad!

Why motorcycling is not exercise

  • 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

However, a few points in favour of motorcycling as 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
  • 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.

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.