I'd always thought I was in good shape—for a gay man in middle age. I could check, with a clear conscience, "athletic" for body type when filling out profiles in online personals. The daily-visit printout I submitted for my annual gym reimbursement was so long that my health-insurance company sent me a check for twice the standard amount—as if rewarding a blue-ribbon effort. Hell, I'll probably have the same full head of boring brown hair at 50 that I had at 15. So even if I've occasionally sunk low enough to shave a few years off my real age, nothing prepared me for the shock of my first spinning class.
"Before the class was over, my quads were blown and I was seeing stars, but I wasn't hallucinating or going hypoglycemic," recalls Chris Kostman, a world-class cyclist and founder of the RoadRacers indoor-cycling program, of his first class with the legendary Johnny G., who invented the Spinner in 1989. "Instead I discovered my union with the cosmos, my small but significant spot in the intertwining cycles of life."
My own initiation was more humbling, even humiliating. While the class was billed only as "intermediate," I was still fumbling with the toe clips when the lights went down, the new Madonna came on, and the instructor let out a "Gear down a third" growl. A spinning bike, of course, has no gears, but a prominent tension lever with an idiot arrow caught my idiot's eye. Accustomed to standard stationary cycles with their modest resistance levels, I geared down two thirds, assuming that since half the class was female, I should overcompensate. Shame on me. Ten minutes in, I had the sinking realization that this ride was way more than I'd bargained for. "Good shape"? What a joke. Well, there was nothing to do but gear up a third, grit my teeth (no dentures yet!) and put mettle to the pedal.
The reason even an intermediate spinning class can shatter your illusions of what it means to be fit is primarily mechanical: While exercise bikes like the LifeCycle have two wheels, Johnny G.'s Spinner (and its many spinoffs) feature only a single front flywheel. But because that silver cylinder is weighted (38 to 44 pounds) and, like the regular road version, pulled by a chain, these one-wheel wonders pick up speed as you pedal. Add to that the tension lever's increasing levels of resistance, and you have the two essential elements for a high-intensity cardiovascular workout, plus some heavy quads action.
But the energy-driven flywheel offers something more—that feat of self-propulsion that makes riding a bike (once balance is mastered) an eternal delight to the child in all of us: you can go as fast as I want. At zero, you're coasting downhill; "gear down" a third, and you're riding on a flat surface; at two thirds, you're climbing; "gear down" the final third, and you're out of the saddle and pounding a steep hill.
That's why spinning simulates a real-life bike ride in a way that stationary exercise bikes never can. No matter how hard you pedal, the two chainless, do-nothing wheels of a stationary exercise bike move at their own, basically constant RPM. Sure, you can close your eyes, click the new Madonna on your Ipod, but the bike never responds. The magic is missing.
Of course, stationary bikes have their place. Repetitive, relaxing, they stand in the back rows and corners of most gyms, ready to treat your body to a low-impact aerobic conditioning while your mind occupies itself otherwise—with, say, an hour of Anderson Cooper as the new face of CNN. In fact, this may be the perfect way to end a 10-hour, stress-filled day at the office.
On the stationary bike, you can control for resistance (current models feature 20 or more levels), but you'll never work your legs to spinning-class standards. You can pre-set the ride for flats, hills, or random, but the ups and downs tend to blur, especially when Anderson is at his most metrosexual earnest. You can even recline on a recumbent LifeCycle, a bonus for anyone who has a bad back or wants to tone their glutes and hamstrings. But do you pay $149 monthly membership fees to sleep at the gym?
Most serious cyclists eye stationary bikes warily. According to Fred Matheny, a senior Race Across America record-holder and RoadBikeRider.com coach, "An indoor trainer works great for short, intense, structured workouts. It becomes a torture machine for long steady-state rides." The reason? "Boredom," says Coach Fred, who advises: "Never do the same thing on a trainer for more than a few minutes at a time. Shift gears, stand up, pedal with one leg, go hard, go easy—anything to give your body and mind a break." In other words, to improve strength, endurance, and conditioning with a stationary bike, act like you're in an advanced spinning class. Turn off Anderson Cooper, run on those pedals up that hill, and feel the burn in your legs and lungs.
Or sign up for a spin class—and for the burn. In the end, despite spinning's New Age trendiness and trappings—the darkened room with its sweat-lodge atmosphere, the over-hyped "motivational instruction" and "visualization cues" (some luxe classes even serve up multimedia "rides" through exotic landscapes), the structure of the workout is old-fashioned interval training, however loosely interpreted. You put your body through a series of increasingly effortful climbs and sprints, alternating with brief recoveries. Some instructors use a stepwise model; others, a random, "real-road" pattern.
As for you, by consistently sucking it up and pushing the comfort envelope, you add an anaerobic dimension, gaining power and speed by fine-tuning those all-important fast-twitch muscles. By next class, the calories you burned to climb that five-degree incline will take you up a six-degree one. Keep at it, and some day you'll be Lance Armstrong, flying in his yellow jersey down the Champs d'Elysses. As for me, I'll be in good shape.
Walter Armstrong is a freelance writer and editor in New York who was the editor-in-chief of POZ magazine for six years. Armstrong has also worked at Rolling Stone, Men's Journal, Us, GQ, OutWeek and numerous other magazines.