Does riding an electric bike to work count as exercise, and not just a mode of transportation?

It can, if you ride right, according to a pragmatic new study comparing the physiological effects of e-bikes and standard road bicycles during a simulated commute. The small study found that most could complete their commutes faster and with less effort on e-bikes than standard bicycles, while elevating their breathing and heart rates enough to get a meaningful workout.

But the benefits varied and depended, to some extent, on how people's bikes were adjusted and how they adjusted to the bikes. The findings have particular relevance at the moment, as pandemic restrictions loosen and offices reopen, and many of us consider options other than buses and light rail.

In America, few of us bike to work. By most estimates, only about one-half of 1% of American workers regularly commute on a bicycle. Asked why, most people tell researchers that bike commuting requires too much time, perspiration and accident risk. Simultaneously, though, people report a growing interest in improving their health and reducing their ecological impact by driving less.

In theory, both these hopes and concerns could be met or minimized with e-bikes. An alluring technological compromise between a self-powered bicycle and a scooter, e-bikes look almost like regular bikes but are fitted with battery-powered electric motors that assist pedaling, slightly juicing each stroke.

With most e-bikes, this assistance is small, similar to riding with a placid tailwind, and ceases once you reach a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour or stop pedaling. The motor will not turn the pedals for you. Some e-bikes, categorized as Type 2 models, have a throttle and will pedal for you, up to a speed of 20 miles per hour, and Type 3 e-bikes power you to a maximum speed of 28 miles per hour. Many localities do not allow Type 3 models on bike paths. According to Minnesota law, e-bikes with 1,000 watts or less that do not exceed 20 miles per hour qualify as bikes and are allowed on bike paths.

Essentially, e-bikes are designed to make riding less taxing. They can also provide a psychological boost, helping riders feel capable of tackling hills they might otherwise avoid. But whether they also complete a workout while e-riding has been less clear.

So, for the new study, which was published in March in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, researchers at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, decided to ask inexperienced cyclists to faux commute. They recruited 30 local men and women, ages 19 to 61, and invited them to the physiology lab to check their fitness levels, along with their current attitudes about e-bikes and commuting.

Then, they equipped each volunteer with a standard road bike and an e-bike and asked them to commute on each bike at their preferred pace for three miles, a distance the scientists considered typical for bike commutes in America. The cyclists pedaled around a flat loop course, once on the road bikes and twice with the e-bike. On one of these rides, their bike was set to a low level of pedal assistance, and on the other, the oomph was upped until the motor sent more than 200 watts of power to the pedals. Throughout, the commuters wore timers, heart rate monitors and facial masks to measure their oxygen consumption.

Afterward, to no one's surprise, the scientists found that the motorized bikes were zippy. On e-bikes, at either assistance level, riders covered the three miles several minutes faster than on the standard bike — about 11 or 12 minutes on an e-bike, on average, compared with about 14 minutes on a regular bike. They also reported that riding the e-bike felt easier. Even so, their heart rates and respiration generally rose enough for those commutes to qualify as moderate exercise, based on standard physiological benchmarks, the scientists decided, and should, over time, contribute to health and fitness.

But the cyclists' results were not all uniform or constructive. A few riders' efforts, especially when they used the higher assistance setting on the e-bikes, were too physiologically mild to count as moderate exercise. Almost everyone also burned about 30% fewer calories while e-biking than road riding.

This study was obviously small-scale and short-term, involving only three brief pseudo-commutes. Still, the findings suggest that "riding an e-bike, like other forms of active transport, can be as good for the person doing it as for the environment," says Helaine Alessio, the chair of the department of kinesiology at Miami University, who led the new study.

But to increase your potential health benefits the most, she says, keep the pedal assistance level set as low as is comfortable for you.