Spinning might look about the same as outdoor cycling or riding a stationary bike, but in many ways, it's a far more intense workout—and one of the easiest to overdo.
First, there aren't many (if any) breaks in spin class. “When you’re biking outside, you have to be aware of road dangers like water and cars, so you have to slow down at times,” says Dr. Maureen Brogan, an assistant professor of medicine at New York Medical College who has conducted research into spinning. Especially if you’re a novice road rider, it’s going to take some time before you’re comfortable enough on two wheels to really push yourself hard for long distances. That’s not the case on a spinning bike, where newbies can hop on and ride hard from the start.
Popular spinning studios like Flywheel and SoulCycle have their riders clip their feet into the stationary bikes. As long as the wheels turn, legs keep pumping. Combine this always-working aspect with the thumping music, enthusiastic instructors and energetic group atmosphere of most spinning studios, and it’s easy to get intense exercise and burn calories by the bucketful.
“The muscles you use on a spinning bike, the gluteus maximus and the quadriceps, are some of the largest in your body, so you’re using a lot of energy,” Brogan says—600 calories an hour, and sometimes more.
This puts spinning near the top of the list when it comes to high-intensity workouts. A study from Sweden found that one hour of spinning was enough to trigger the release of blood chemicals associated with heart stress or changes. While that may sound like a bad thing, these blood chemicals—or biomarkers—signal the heart is getting a good workout. “These kinds of findings have also been seen with prolonged exertion such as marathons,” says study author Dr. Smita Dutta Roy of Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Sweden. While more research is needed to tease out the risks or benefits associated with exercise of this intensity, she says that some of the biomarker shifts her team observed could lead to blood vessel repair and renewal.
It can also help improve body composition, decrease fat mass and lower blood pressure and cholesterol, says Jinger Gottschall, an associate professor of kinesiology at Penn State University. Some of her research has shown that high-intensity spinning can increase fitness levels even in trained athletes. “In every study we’ve done, we’ve seen increases in heart and lung capacity,” she says. She calls spinning “the optimal cardio workout,” and says you can get all the intensity of a treadmill or stair-climber without the impact.
The low-impact nature of spinning makes it great exercise for older adults or people recovering from orthopedic injuries, she adds. “Because you can adjust the resistance and moderate the pace and intensity of your ride, it opens the door for many people to participate,” she says.
But it's also easy for people who are new to spinning to overexert themselves. “If you’re not used to vigorous exercise, or to exercising the large lower-body muscles involved in spinning, you can overdo it,” Brogan says. She’s a kidney expert by training, and some of her research has linked spinning to rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which muscles break down to the point that they release a protein that can poison the kidneys. “People have swollen legs or trouble walking, and sometimes they take aspirin or NSAIDs for the muscle pain, which is the last thing they should do because those can also damage the kidneys,” she says. Problems like this can set in a day or two after spin class, she says.
While overexertion is possible with any form of exercise, she says the risks during spinning may be higher—especially when you consider that some spinners lose up to a liter of water during an hour-long session.
Even for trained athletes, there’s some evidence that spinning too often may lead to trouble. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that spinning may push some people past the threshold at which the exercise is beneficial. “If indoor cycling were used as an everyday training activity, it is possible that the overall intensity would be too high and possibly contribute to developing nonfunctional overreaching,” the authors of that study write. (“Nonfunctional overreaching” is sports science lingo for a workout that’s so strenuous it leads to fatigue and performance declines, rather than fitness improvements.)
Overall, spinning is exceptional exercise. But if you’re new to it, you need to ease in and give your muscles time to adapt to its intensity. Even if you’re an experienced athlete, pushing yourself to your limit the first or second time you get on a spinning bike may be risky, Brogan says. Even once you’ve found your spinning legs, daily sessions may still be overkill.
But if you’re looking for a high-intensity workout a few days a week—and especially if running or other forms of vigorous aerobic exercise hurt your joints—spinning may be the ideal way to keep your heart and body in shape.