Spinning (AKA stationary cycling) has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity thanks to the entrepreneurs behind Soul Cycle and Flywheel. There are even underwater spin classes! These classes are fun, energy packed and tough as nails but they may not lead to long term weight loss. They may even be harmful to your health. Say what?! [caveat: any exercise is better than no exercise. If spin class is the only thing that’ll get you off your butt and in the gym, far be it from me to discourage you]. That being said, a 3-4 time per week spin class may be an unfortunate misuse of your precious and limited fitness schedule. Learn to work smarter not harder at the gym and you can economize your time for the fastest results.
The human body is the most adaptable machine known to man. Our brains and bodies adapt very quickly to new situations and stimulus. In terms of exercise, your body adapts to the specific imposed demands you put upon it. During this adaptation phase your muscles will usually get stronger and bigger in order to prepare for the next bout of exercise (this progression is rarely linear and governed by a multitude of factors). Your nervous, hormonal and cardiovascular systems will also improve their efficiency rate, up to a point. So far so good. Here is what happens when you first take a spin class:
Your body says “holy cow, what the heck are you doing!” this is really damn hard, but kinda of fun. If you overdid it, and it is likely you did, you will experience some delayed onset muscle soreness the following days. It is during these days of rest, in between classes that your body will repair itself and prepare for the next bout of exercise stimulus. The reparations include an increase in muscle tissue, improved capillarization, better oxygen uptake, bolstered tolerance to pain and enhanced motor patterns. Over the first six to eight weeks your progress will continue to improve and you may even lose body fat and gain lean muscle. At about the 2 month mark your body will have become quite efficient in dealing with spin classes – so much so you will burn 20-50% less calories than the first time you took the class. Yet it is likely your intake of calories will not decrease by the same amount – negating most of the initial weight loss.
Your brain hates wasting energy and will do all it can to save it. During times of starvation (we are all descendants of people who did very well during periods of low food) your body conserves as much energy as it can in order to survive. The human body has evolved to adapt to new movements in order conserve energy. The more you cycle the more efficient your movements will become. For professional cyclist this is great news; they learn to bike just as hard while using less fuel. It’s not so good for the individual interested in weight loss. This little rule of adaptation and conservation of energy not only applies to spinning but all forms of cardiovascular exercise. So why am I picking on Spin? If it’s the primary focus of cardio exercise, Spin class can be problematic because:
- It is not a weight bearing exercise, it is weight supported, meaning you do not have to contend with your body weight and overcome all sorts of forces. This means there are less muscles in play and your global neuromuscular demand is lower.
- You need axial loads and/or body weight movements to increase your bone density. Spinning has neither.
- Spinning bikes are quite stable and therefore you’ll tax neither your equilibrium nor righting reflexes (balance systems). Outdoor cycling requires a lot of balance, dexterity and the ability to overcome wind resistance.
- The structured cycling movement has little variation and thus you may be creating even and consistent wear patterns in your joints, mainly on your knee, hip and ankle. Overuse injuries abound.
- Most people spend the majority of their day seated, which causes a whole host of problems including lower cross syndrome, back pain, decreased O2 consumption and neck pain to name a few. Why go to the gym and exacerbate this faulty and injurious posture by sitting some more?
- A side effect of spinning is increased muscle mass in the hips, thighs and glutes. This may not be something you desire. ‘Climbing’ will build lean muscle mass in your hips and legs. If you are not losing body fat at the same rate you may just ‘push’ the fat farther out, giving the appearance of a larger butt and leg. Ever notice the big booties on some spin teachers?
- Doing moderate to high intensity cardio for 40 minutes or more will likely make you hungrier, especially if you are a woman. As you know, it’s easy to negate the 400 calories you just burned with one slice of pizza.
- Depending on your volume and intensity, spinning does not even rank in the top 9 most calorically demanding cardio exercises.
Bottom line: There are better cardio options at the gym than spin class. If you’ve had success and love spinning, by all means keep on keeping on. Good for you. For all others: stop spinning your wheels. It is much more advantageous to cross train and vary your cardio workouts. Keep your body guessing and adapting to new stimuli. Variety is good for your brain and your body.by