- Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
- A growing chorus of medical experts and personal trainers have suggested that spin classes might not be the optimal exercise for health.
- My own experience with spinning has led to back pain and the unsettling feeling that I’m going to fall off the bike.
- If the option is between spinning and lying on the couch, then a spin class might still be the healthier choice.
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There’s a moment in Amy Schumer’s 2018 comedy “I Feel Pretty” where she climbs onto a spin bike, struggles to clip her shoes in the pedals, then comes crashing to the ground in the middle of a ride. It’s a scene played for laughs, but it’s also one of my greatest fears when I enter an indoor cycling class.
While some of the more expensive spin bikes are designed to be ergonomic, sitting atop a piece of equipment that’s in many cases lighter than you are feels like begging for an accident.
There’s also something about being hunched over a stationary object for an hour that seems antithetical to fitness. By the end of a class, I’m left feeling exhausted, but not necessarily more agile. In some instances, my back even aches, despite my attempt to maintain proper form.
Personal grievances aside, I’m aware that spinning is a 30-year phenomenon that’s become popular among celebrities, personal trainers, and the workout-obsessed. But there’s evidence to suggest that my complaints are well-founded.
In recent years, medical experts have started to raise concerns about spin classes producing back injuries and muscle trauma. At the same time, a growing chorus of physical trainers has argued that spinning doesn’t offer the kind of resistance training that’s helpful in weight loss (a goal of some, but certainly not all spinning enthusiasts). One study even found that the music in spin classes could potentially damage your hearing, a claim backed up by multiple spin instructors.
While these concerns aren’t enough for me to advise my friends against spinning, they’ve made me reconsider it as a form of exercise.
There’s little evidence to suggest that spinning is better than any other kind of exercise routine
- Alli Harvey / Stringer / Getty Images
The “indoor party” atmosphere of a spin class is undeniably fun, but over the last few years, I’ve found far greater fitness results ditching the machines altogether.
When it comes to weight loss specifically, the “evidence doesn’t suggest” that spinning is more effective than any other exercise routine, said Anthony Hackney, PhD, a professor of exercise physiology and nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
That’s because weight loss results from expending enough energy to create a caloric deficit. When you spin at a low resistance, you’re not likely to create the kind of deficit that would help shed pounds.
There’s also the danger of making resistance too high. Hackney said the optimal setting for energy expenditure is around 80 to 90 revolutions per minute – a pace that’s difficult to keep when the resistance is cranked up.
Though I’ve often tried to ignore an instructor’s commands to bump up the resistance when I’m feeling fatigued, this puts me off pace with the rest of the class – a huge “no-no” in spin.
Even when I achieve the perfect balance of resistance and speed, spinning mostly engages the muscles in my lower body. “There are 616 muscles in the human body, and spinning barely uses half of them,” personal trainer Jimmy Minardi told Livestrong in 2017. “You’re way better off going out for a brisk walk.”
Hackney said “a better, well-rounded workout” involves exercising both the upper and lower body. “The more muscle you have involved in the activity you’re doing, the more energy you’re going to expend,” he said.
While some of my spin classes have incorporated upper body weights, Hackney said it can be challenging to perform this activity while pedaling, which creates “a likelihood of people not executing things well.”
The same goes for trying to pedal as fast as we can. “Unless you’re a professional cyclist … we’re not very good at it because it’s really a quick movement,” said Hackney. Suddenly, the fear of falling off a bike doesn’t seem so irrational.
Spinning also poses a risk of back injury
- Nicky J. Sims/Getty Images
Just as I predicted, Hackney said one of the major health risks related to spinning is back issues. Though spin instructors will often tell you to push your shoulders back so that you’re not slumped over the bike, that posture can be difficult to maintain over the course of a workout.
“If you’re laying over the handlebars because you’re fatigued, you’re putting a lot of stress on your lower back,” said Hackney. “The bike’s not designed to give you support in that context.”
Jason Walsh, the founder of fitness company Rise Nation, doesn’t recommended spinning for that very reason. “The human body was never meant to sit in a flexed [bent-forward] spinal position, performing hundreds if not thousands of repetitions,” he told Livestrong.
But Mark Tarnopolsky, PhD, the director of the Neuromuscular and Neurometabolic Clinic at McMaster University in Ontario, told me that spinning shouldn’t present an issue unless someone has an existing neck problem. I’d wager that could be any of us who hunch over our computers each day.
There’s also a possibility that spinning could expose muscles to unnecessary strain. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Medicine found the spinning newcomers could be vulnerable to rhabdomyolysis, a muscle syndrome that can lead to kidney failure. The condition is frequently associated with car accidents or other forms of trauma.
When it comes to exercise, Hackney said rhabdomyolysis is more commonly associated with strength training, where people are lifting extremely heavy weights. Though he said it’s possible for spinning to trigger the condition, he believes it would be “an extremely rare occurrence” – unless someone had incorporated other exercises into their routine.
Spinning might not be the best exercise, but you can do it if you love it
At the very least, spinning can serve as a good form of cardiovascular exercise, which helps raise your heart rate and prevent or manage health issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
- Courtesy of SoulCycle
If you hate all other forms of exercise and have to decide between spinning or lying sedentary on your couch, then choose spinning.
“Just getting folks to do the activity is the most important,” Tarnopolsky said. “Intensity is good, but doing anything is better than much of the population.”
Hackney agrees. When choosing an appropriate exercise, he said, you should first look for something you enjoy and then find a community or support system that keeps you committed and engaged.
“The secret [to exercising] for health is to be consistent and be regular,” he said.
When I first started spinning, I found that it was a great way to spend time with friends while sneaking in a workout. There was also a certain euphoria that came with being in a dark room, listening to my favorite songs among a community of determined riders.
But, given my concerns about back pain and falling off the bike, it’s not the type of workout that will get me to show up each week.
Exercise “is a personal choice,” said Hackney. “But I think people, when making those personal choices, need to say, ‘Gee, what are the good things about this? What could potentially be bad?'”