Looking for a New Workout This Year? Try Spinning!

by Rachel Zavala

You’ve witnessed the dark room full of Under Armour-clad bodies pedaling furiously, channeling Lance Armstrong while they cycle to techno-infused music. Perhaps you’ve caught a whiff when they exited class, looking as if they had jumped into a pool with their clothes on. As a result you’ve thought: no way am I getting within a five-foot radius of indoor cycling class. 

As a cycling instructor, I have seen lots of people—from exercise newbies to gym regulars—hesitantly climb on a bike and start pedaling, then proudly walk up to me after their first class and report that it was not the torture session they had anticipated. In fact, they actually enjoyed it.

Indoor cycling, pioneered by ultra-endurance athlete Jonathan Goldberg in the late ’80s under the trademarked name Spinning, was originally created to serve the winter training needs of cyclists and people looking for a non-impact, cardiovascular alternative to the treadmill and elliptical machine.

So why all the fear?

Indoor cycling is mysterious; people don’t have a lot of awareness about what exactly it entails; they think that because it is on a bike, it is only for fit people or elite cyclists, which is far from the truth.

Unfortunately, instructors sometimes play into this aura of mystique by boasting how intense their class is instead of supporting participants’ health goals. Cycling should be about achieving fitness goals and working out at an aerobic pace fit to your cardiovascular level, not putting your body through an agonizing workout for 50 minutes.

As such, even though cycling is classified as a group fitness class, participants control the session’s intensity more than they do in step or aerobics classes, which involve lots of choreography. Classes typically last 50 minutes and can burn roughly 500 calories or more (depending on your age, sex, and weight) since you are engaging the major leg muscles and core. By adjusting the resistance knob attached to the brake at the front of the bike, riders can tailor the class to different fitness levels, or mimic climbing hills or sprinting on flat roads.

According to Sarah Hippert, a first-year Food, Policy, and Applied Nutrition student who routinely cycles, she was “attracted to cycling by the intensity of the workout.” However, she emphasizes that cycling is a great exercise option for all fitness levels.

“Cycling is a great group [exercise] class because it allows each individual to contour the workout accordingly by adjusting the settings on your bike and pacing yourself so that you can challenge yourself throughout the workout. This allows both beginners and advanced cyclers to participate in the same class.”

And here lies the secret; no one can tell how much resistance you have loaded on the bike when the instructor calls out to turn it up. So if you are feeling weary from studying, just a quarter-turn. If you are looking to burn off last night’s dinner party, load on more resistance. You can also vary your speed and position—sitting or standing—to suit your preferences.

Here are a few tips for those willing to give their workout a new “spin” this year:

  • Before your first class, ask the instructor what credentials he or she carries. Ask other participants about their experiences; most love to talk about cycling, and may continue talking through warm-up.
  • Get to class about 15 minutes early so the instructor can set you up on the bike, explain safety cues and demonstrate good form (knees slightly bent when pedaling; back not hunched when you lean on the handlebars).
  • Even though cycling is non-impact, you can risk injury your knees and back if you are not fitted properly. If the instructor does not give you special attention, leave and find another instructor.
  • Bring a full water bottle, a towel and lightweight clothing. Avoid wearing long pants, especially those with flared legs that could get caught in the pedal spindles. Sneakers are fine for your first few classes.
  • Don’t feel compelled to keep up with the instructor or other participants. Use your first class to play around with the resistance and watch how the class is conducted.

Hippert advises newcomers to “pace [yourself] and really focus on the form and alignment cues from the instructor” so as to avoid injuries.

Many of my participants are runners whose knees have sustained too many beatings from the pavement, bikers looking to sustain their cardiovascular levels during the winter season, and those who want to lose those stubborn last few pounds.

The greatest source of complaint I hear from new participants (besides the expected muscle soreness) is the seat, which is roughly the size of an ipod. Sadly, I can almost guarantee you will experience “saddle soreness” after your first few rides, but this subsides as your body becomes more accustomed to the bike. Purchasing a gel seat for roughly $15 at your local sporting goods store will make for a more comfortable ride.

Allow yourself about five classes before you pass judgment on cycling. You may find enjoyment in walking out of class sweat-soaked after a terrific workout.

Unfortunately the new fitness center at Sackler Center and Wang YMCA do not offer cycling classes. However, most health clubs throughout the greater Boston area have cycling classes, including BSC, Sports Club L.A., Equinox, Healthworks, and Gold’s Gym.

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