Spinning classes better than outdoor cycling – the real difference to your health
Do spinning classes offer any benefits that I can’t get from biking on my own?
In theory, cycling is cycling. The pulse of the music, the exhortations of your instructor, and the presence of a group of like-minded exercisers do nothing to spin your pedals. In practice, though, the ingredients of a typical indoor cycling class somehow combine to lift workouts to heights that most participants wouldn’t achieve on their own. The alchemy of group exercise is well known to runners and aerobics classes, but spinning has found a recipe so powerful that researchers studying it have been forced to re-evaluate their definition of “maximal” exercise—and sound a warning for beginners who may wander into a class unprepared.
The current incarnation of group indoor cycling dates back to 1987, when South African–born cyclist Jonathan Goldberg first organized training sessions in the style he later trademarked as “Spinning.” These days, more than half of North American health clubs offer group cycling classes, reaching millions of participants, according to figures from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. In a typical class, the instructor leads participants through a ride that varies dramatically in intensity, increasing and decreasing resistance to simulate hills and headwinds. Crucially, each person controls the resistance on her own bike—only the broad contours of the workout are synchronized. “Successful instructors turn out to be really good at motivating people to push harder,” says Carl Foster, an exercise scientist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.
A few years ago, Foster and his colleagues enlisted 20 female students for a study of the physiological responses to indoor cycling, in order to investigate earlier reports that spinners could exceed their “VO2max”—a measure of the maximum rate at which your body can send oxygen to its working muscles. The results, published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research in 2008, confirmed that spinners were somehow exceeding the “maximum” that earlier tests had calculated for them.
Spinning doesn’t, in fact, have any magical effect on oxygen circulation. The results simply indicate that people in an ordinary cycling class managed to reach higher peak intensities than they did during the rigorous progressive exercise tests that doctors and researchers use to measure VO2max—and much higher intensities than a typical gym user slogging away on a solitary exercise bike. These peaks are held for only short periods of time, and the average intensity throughout the session is relatively moderate: typically 65 to 75 percent of maximum intensity, Foster found. This pattern of highs and lows mimics the “interval” workouts used by endurance athletes to maximize fitness.
In general, this is a good thing. But it does carry risks for new gym users aged over 40, who may have undiagnosed heart disease, Foster cautions. A simple screening tool like the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire, PAR-Q, can help determine whether you should see a doctor before you start spinning. Some clubs offer classes aimed at beginners, which is a good way to start. After you’ve been spinning for a few months, the greatest danger will have passed, Foster says. Then you’re free to give in to what the music, the instructor, and the group are urging you to do: go all out.
Will taking the stairs make a real difference to my health?
Sprinting up the 1,576 steps of the Empire State Building, as participants in the annual Empire State Run-Up have done each year since 1978, certainly qualifies as a vigorous workout. But you don’t have to work in a skyscraper—or enter stair-climbing races—to get the benefits of a stair workout. Researchers in Ireland have been studying the benefits of dashing up the stairs periodically over the course of a workday, and they’ve observed surprising fitness gains. “I think the key thing here,” says Colin Boreham, a professor at the University College Dublin Institute for Sport and Health, “is that stair-climbing is one of the few everyday activities at a moderate to high intensity that one can do surreptitiously without having to change, use special equipment or look foolish.”
Competitive stair-climbs for charity are a growing phenomenon. The TowerRunning.com website (motto: “Take the stairs and not the elevator”) lists well over 100 events around the world, and Italian scientists have analyzed the physics and physiology of these events in a study of “skyscraper running” that appeared in 2010 in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. Among the notable insights of the study is that using the handrails to haul yourself up turns the activity into a full-body workout much like rowing, resulting in a “global, maximal effort.” About 80 percent of the power you exert goes to raising your body against the force of gravity, 5 percent goes to whipping your limbs back and forth, and the remaining 15 percent goes toward running tiny semicircles at each landing.
Because of its high intensity, stair climbing offers a time-efficient workout: the record for climbing up the Empire State Building is just nine minutes and 33 seconds. However, Boreham and his colleagues have found that a much more moderate approach can also pay dividends. They asked eight undergraduate women to undertake an eight-week program that started with climbing a 199-step staircase twice a day, five days a week. They climbed at a moderate rate of 90 steps a minute, so that it took about two minutes to reach the top. By the end of the program, they were climbing five times a day—not all at once, but scattered through the day—for a daily total of just over 10 minutes of exercise a day.
Compared to a group of matched controls, the stair-climbers increased their aerobic fitness by 17 percent and reduced harmful LDL cholesterol by 8 percent, results that compare favorably to taking a half-hour daily walk. The researchers are now investigating whether the protocol can be transferred to older adults, using a stepping machine rather than staircases. “Because it’s at such a high intensity, it accomplishes health adaptations in a shorter period,” Boreham says, “which is handy if you like your exercise in short bites.”
Standard exercise guidelines suggest that bouts of exercise should last at least 10 minutes in order to produce meaningful gains, although recent research into “high-intensity interval training” supports the idea that you can get by with short bursts if they’re intense enough. The gains in Boreham’s study are modest enough that you shouldn’t view taking the stairs as the only thing needed to stay fit. But they offer encouraging evidence that simple decisions to be more active in your daily life can add up to measurable health benefits—even if you don’t climb the Empire State Building.
CHEAT SHEET: AEROBIC EXERCISE
• No matter what your exercise goals are, aerobic exercise is crucial for your health—and it also plays a key role in sports performance, even in “relaxed” sports like golf.
• Use the “Talk Test” to divide your effort between the aerobic, threshold, and anaerobic effort zones. Spend about 70 percent of your time in the aerobic zone.
• The old “220 minus age” formula for finding your maximum heart rate is highly inaccurate, especially for older adults. (208-0.7 x age) is better, but the only way to get an accurate reading is with a max HR test.
• Altering your breathing to fit a certain pattern or rhythm generally makes you less efficient. If you’re panting uncontrollably, you’re probably pushing too hard.
• The smooth, unchanging surface of roads and sidewalks may be more of a problem for our legs than hardness. Running on a variety of surfaces minimizes injury risk.
• It is possible, with a lot of hard work, to alter your running form. However, there’s no current evidence that doing so will reduce injuries or make you faster.
• Most runners push too hard on uphills and slow down more than they need to on downhills. Practice the mechanics of running downhill to gradually increase your speed.
• The muscles in your arms play very little role in running, but swinging your arms may help keep your legs going through “neural coupling.”
• Some riders manage to exceed their “maximum” intensity during spinning classes; researchers believe that motivational instructors and the group setting provide an extra boost.
• Climbing stairs for just two minutes at a time, five times a day, can produce significant fitness gains without even going to the gym.