Swimming vs cycling for weight loss can be a difficult choice! I love both swimming and cycling, like many other people. Both are high intensity cardio exercises that get you out of the house and working hard. But, if you’re specifically working out to lose weight, you might be wondering whether swimming or cycling will be better for you. Today, I’ll break down how many calories these forms of exercise burn, the muscles they work, and the major pros and cons of each to help you decide.
Swimming vs Cycling for Weight Loss
Weight loss is a common aim for a lot of us, whether through healthier eating or increased exercise. Studies have linked obesity with an increase in certain health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even some types of cancer. Some studies have also explored a link between excess weight and poor mental health. So, looking into swimming or cycling for weight loss makes sense if you’re looking to improve your health.
Swimming and cycling are both intense forms of cardiovascular exercise. They are both low impact, and are easier on your joints than some other forms of exercise, like running or aerobics. So, they can both be a great choice for people who struggle with running, but still want a workout that gets them out of the house. Or that is more affordable for the gym.
Both cycling and swimming can be effective for weight loss, particularly when paired with a healthy diet and when made a consistent part of your lifestyle. But, there are a few pros and cons for each that can impact which form of exercise is better for you. Including the muscle groups they use, and the calories each type burns in a single workout.
What Burns More Calories, Swimming or Cycling?
Calories burnt during swimming and cycling can vary depending on a huge number of factors. The amount of calories you burn during a workout can depend on the intensity of the workout, as well as your current weight and muscle mass. Going for a leisurely cycle is going to burn fewer calories than a fast-paced race. In the same way that 10 minutes of relaxed breast stroke will burn fewer calories than 30 minutes of front crawl.
A Harvard study in 2021 compared the calories burnt by people of 3 different weights doing various activities for 30 minutes. I’ve gathered the results for cycling and swimming in a table below to help you compare the two.
|Calories Burnt||125 lbs person||155 lbs person||185 lbs person|
|Swimming: laps, vigorous||300||360||420|
|Cycling: 12 – 13.9 mph||240||288||336|
|Cycling: 14 – 15.9 mph||300||360||420|
|Cycling: 16 – 19 mph||360||432||504|
|Cycling: >20 mph||495||594||693|
|Cycling: BMX or mountain biking||255||306||357|
So, Which Sport Burns the Most Calories?
So, as you can see, swimming vs cycling for weight loss is a bit more complicated than you’d first think. The amount of calories burnt will depend on the intensity of each exercise, and on your current weight and body composition.
The Harvard study suggests that you can burn more calories by cycling for 30 minutes than swimming for 30 minutes, as long as you’re cycling at a speed of over 16 miles per hour. And, cycling at over 12 miles per hour will burn more calories than moderate swimming. But, swimming vigorous laps will burn the same amount of calories as cycling at 14 – 15.9 miles per hour for all weight types studied. And will burn more calories than BMX biking or mountain biking.
At a glance, cycling may seem like the best cardio to help you lose weight. But, it will all depend on how fast you go, and whether you’re only interested in burning the most calories rather than improving your overall fitness and coordination.
Why Does Swimming Burn So Few Calories?
You might be feeling a little surprised at the results of the above study. After all, swimming can feel really tiring, especially for 30 minutes! So why doesn’t it burn more calories?
Firstly, a person’s flexibility and coordination can influence how easy or hard swimming feels for them. But, it’s also important to remember that there are a lot of factors that can influence how many calories a workout burns. Two people doing exactly the same exercise for 30 minutes can burn very different levels of calories if they weigh different amounts. And, the faster you swim, the more calories you’ll burn.
But, the same is true of all sports. The harder you work, the more calories you’ll burn. And, in the case of cycling, most beginners will start off moving between 10 and 12 mph. It’s not until you reach a more advanced level that you’ll start hitting speeds that rival swimming for calories burnt. Swimming laps with proper form and a good speed will actually burn a lot of calories, just as faster cycling can do the same. Both can burn a lot of calories, especially compared to other spots like football, volleyball, and so on.
Does Cycling or Swimming Use more Muscles?
One of the major differences between cycling and swimming is the muscles used during each form of exercise. When cycling, the majority of the force is on the muscles in your lower body. Particularly your legs. Muscles in your upper body tend to stay stationary.
In contrast, swimming is often a full body workout. Different strokes will favor different muscles – for instance, your arms generate the majority of the power during front crawl, but your legs are the driving force in breaststroke. But, all swimming strokes tend to engage your arms, shoulders, core, and legs to some extent.
Which Is Best, Swimming or Cycling?
It’s hard to say which of these two sports is best, but it’s a good idea to consider your current ability and your fitness goals. If your goal is simply to lose weight, you might stick to cycling, since this sport has the potential to burn more calories once you reach an advanced level. But, in truth, either sport can help you lose weight as long as you’re eating properly and working out consistently.
And, weight loss isn’t the only factor to consider when choosing between swimming and cycling. I’ve put some of the main pros and cons of each exercise into a table, below, so you can compare them more easily.
|Pros:||– Provides a full body workout|
– Lots of variety, plenty of swimming strokes to learn
– Low impact cardio that can burn lots of calories
– Improves flexibility and coordination
|– Higher potential to burn lots of calories|
– You can have fun finding new cycle routes
– Low impact cardio
|Cons:||– Chlorine and chemicals in swimming pools can be harsh on skin and hair|
– Swimming pools usually require paid memberships
|– Cycle paths aren’t always available, and not everyone feels safe to cycle on the road|
– The cost of bike upkeep
– Only really engages lower body muscles
On the whole, it is usually a case of personal preference when choosing between swimming and cycling. Both sports are low impact and will require some level of financial output. Swimming will offer a full body workout, but a very advanced cyclist will potentially burn more calories. Either way, both are a great option for anyone who wants a low impact sport to boost their fitness and overall health.
How Much Weight Can I Lose Swimming?
There’s no easy way of predicting exactly how much weight you can lose whilst swimming, because so many other factors can influence your results. Weight loss whilst swimming can differ depending on things like:
- What you’re eating
- How much you’re eating
- Your starting weight
- Your starting body composition (eg. how much muscle)
- Any health conditions
- How long your workouts are
- How vigorous your workouts are
- Consistency of workouts
And more. Weight loss doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s also easy to get disheartened if you don’t think you’re seeing results quickly. But, if you stick with a consistent swimming workout regime and eat healthy foods in healthy amounts, you’re likely to start seeing weight loss results in months or even weeks. And, you’re bound to experience plenty of the other benefits swimming can offer, such as an improved mood, better overall fitness, and better coordination.
Swimming vs Cycling for Weight Loss
Both swimming and cycling are great sports to choose if you’re trying to lose weight. They’re both low impact and high intensity. But, the one that’s best for you can depend on a lot of things, including any other fitness goals you have and any previous experience at the sports. Which do you prefer, swimming or cycling?
Learn More About Swimming and Fitness
- Will swimming improve my mood?
- Walking vs swimming
- Swimming vs lifting weights
- Can swimming improve your memory?
- Is backstroke good for fitness?
- Martin, C. (et al), ‘Attempts to Lose Weight Among Adults in the United States, 2013 – 2016’, NCHS Data Brief (2018)
- Fontana, L. & Hu, F. ‘Optimal Body Weight for Health and Longevity: Bridging Basic, Clinical, and Population Research’, Aging Cell (2014)
- Michels, N. ‘Poor Mental Health is Related to Excess Weight via Lifestyle: A Cross-Sectional Gender- and Age-Dependent Mediation Analysis’, Nutrients (2021)
- ‘Calories Burnt in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights’, Harvard Health Publishing (2021)
- Alkatan, M. (et al), ‘Improved Function and Reduced Pain after Swimming and Cycling Training in Patients with Osteoarthritis’, The Journal of Rheumatology (2016)