Recently, a study came out that made indoor cycling lovers everywhere stop cold in their Shimanos. You may have seen the headlines splashed across the news: “Why Intense Workouts Are Leading to a Life-Threatening Condition, “Exercise Dangers: How Spinning Can Take a Nasty Turn.” The research, which was published in The American Journal of Medicine, examined three cases of rhabdomyolysis that set in after the subjects (two women and one man) took their first Spin class.
Rhabdo (for short) is a serious condition in which an intense bout of exercise causes the muscles to break down and release proteins and enzymes into the bloodstream, causing kidney damage and possibly failure. In rare cases, it can even lead to death.
Sounds scary, right? It’s definitely not something to take lightly, but let’s put this in perspective. First of all, yes, indoor cycling can be intense (that’s what devotees love about it!). And high-intensity workouts up your risk for rhabdo. (The condition has also been reported in CrossFitters.) On stationary bikes, “there’s no coasting like you could do on a regular bike," explains lead study author Maureen Brogan, M.D., an associate professor at New York Medical College. "And you lose up to a liter of sweat per hour. Getting dehydrated also puts you at risk.” But, she adds, the vast majority of cases occur in newbie Spinners who aren’t in shape and push themselves too hard, too soon. “Once you’re conditioned, it’s good exercise,” Brogan says. So not even the scientists are trying to dissuade you from indoor cycling.
And rhabdomyolysis isn’t exactly common either. According to Brogan’s study, only 46 cases have been reported in the literature—again, mostly among those considered “deconditioned.” (Although, to be fair, many more cases have happened but have just not been recorded.) So let’s all just calm down about this one. These fearmongering headlines are missing the bigger picture.
“The real focus should be on Spinning smart,” says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Group fitness is great, but we all need to know how to listen to our bodies. Just because an instructor encourages you to push yourself beyond your limits, doesn't mean you literally should, especially if that exercise is new to you.
His advice: If you’re new to indoor cycling, make sure to take a beginner class (many studios offer 101 versions for newbies) and let the instructor know you’re a first timer. Be sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workout. And whether you’re a seasoned Spinner or taking your first class, use good form and go at your own pace—not the pace of the person maniacally pedaling next to you. “I always tell people, if you need to slow down or stop, it’s not like the person behind you is going to bump into you,” McCall says. All of which will ensure the only thing killer about your workout is the results you get.