Correction to This Article
The Moving Crew column in today's Health section, which was printed in advance, misstates the age of Fairfax resident Kate Leon. She is 44, not 46.
The Moving Crew

Deserving a Better Spin

By Rachel Zavala
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

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

I know how it is. But don't be put off -- really.

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," said Meg McNeely, a Master Spinning certified instructor who teaches throughout Maryland. "People think that because [the exercise session] is on a bike, it is only for fit people or [elite] cyclists, but that is not true."

Instructors sometimes play into this aura of mystique by boasting how intense their class is instead of supporting participants' health goals.

"Cycling is about attaining and achieving fitness, working at a good aerobic pace, not walking out and thinking, 'That was so hard,' " McNeely said.

Even though cycling is classified as a group fitness class, participants control a session's intensity more than they do in step or aerobics classes that involve lots of choreography.

Classes typically last 50 minutes, cover 15 to 20 miles and burn 500 calories or more while engaging the major leg muscles and the core. By adjusting the resistance knob attached to the brake at the front of the bike, you can tailor the class to your fitness level or mimic climbing hills or sprinting on flat roads.

But -- psst -- here's a secret. No one has to know how much resistance you have loaded on the bike when the instructor calls out to turn it up. So if you are feeling weary, just a quarter-turn. If you are looking to burn off last night's buffet, load on more resistance. You can also vary your speed and position -- sitting or standing -- to suit your preferences.

To allay your initial fears, try setting a small goal. That's what Kate Leon did.

"I was very apprehensive to start cycling at first since . . . it looked so intense and like you had to be in top shape to do it. Then an instructor told me my only goal was to stay on the bike," said Leon, 46, of Fairfax.

McNeely offers the following tips for newcomers to indoor cycling:

· Before your first class, ask the instructor what credentials he or she carries. (Spinning and Cycle Reebok are the most highly regarded.) Ask participants about their experiences. Make sure the class will be taught in a room with enough light to let the instructor see participants' faces and gauge how fatigued they are.

· 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 injure 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. Ordinary sneakers are fine.

· 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.

Many of my new participants are runners whose knees have sustained too many beatings from the pavement, people looking to lower their heart rate or cholesterol levels, and those who want to lose the weight they are convinced is permanently fixed to their body. Some, like Leon, say indoor cycling is helping them close in on their goals.

"I was surprised that I liked it so much," Leon said. "I aim to go about three days a week now because it just gets so addicting, and if I don't go, I miss it."

The greatest source of complaint I hear from new participants, besides muscle soreness: the seat. Yes, it is the size of a slice of cheesecake, and I can almost guarantee you will experience "saddle soreness" after your first few rides. 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 you take pleasure in walking out of class sweat-soaked after a first-rate workout.

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