I admit, I had my preconceptions. Like many fitness trends, I assumed spin classes were socially exclusive, if a bit reminiscent of a cult. I had a specific image of a person who did spin classes in my head and, as a man, I feared I’d be out of place.
Even as a 31-year-old, I thought I might be over the hill. But as someone with rheumatoid arthritis, I’m always looking for ways to challenge my body and stay in shape — if the exercise agrees with my condition. So, when I saw that my gym offered free spin classes and remembered that biking is a low-impact exercise, I decided to give it a whirl (pun intended).
Spin class surprise
When I entered the class, my preconceptions were debunked. People of all ages, both men and women, were saddling up on their stationary bikes. The instructor, a middle-aged woman, was very welcoming to first-timers. She helped us adjust our seats and showed us how to read the screen on the bike so we could keep up with her instructions. Then, she kicked the class off.
And by kicked the class off, I mean kicked our butts — for the next hour. The instructor biked along with us in front of the class and gave us instructions with a microphone headset. The screen attached to the bike tracked the RPM (revolutions per minute) of our wheels and told us how fast we were going. Loud, motivational music helped keep us moving the whole time.
For an hour, we cycled at different intervals. We would start going at a certain speed and gear for 30 seconds, then add a gear and reduce the speed, then add another gear and reduce the speed more. This cycle repeated about four times, until our legs were churning and quaking. It felt like trying to push through quicksand.
Then our instructor dialed us back and brought us back to the pace where we began. Pedaling felt as light as a feather, and we were able to catch our breath. My heart was still pounding, I was heaving for air, sweat was dripping from my nose, and my hand was slipping from the handle bar. I couldn’t remember feeling so physically exerted since I played college baseball. And we were only 20 minutes in!
The instructor took the class through two more cycles of starting easy, pedaling to the rhythm of the song, and building up the resistance while lowering our speed until our legs were jelly, and we were pushing at a snail’s pace, gasping for air. By the end, my shirt looked like I’d swum in it. The endorphins were rampant as everyone in the class applauded; proud they’d made it through and relieved it was over.
Why spin class can work for people with RA
For a few reasons, I think a spin class is a great opportunity for people with RA.
- As said earlier, cycling is a low-impact exercise, and spin classes are structured so you can get a very earnest cardio workout, which I think provides much more for our bodies than a casual bike ride.
- There was no pressure to push through if you got uncomfortable. The pace was set by the instructor, but you weren’t locked in there. People didn’t stare at you if you had to get up, walk out, and take a breather. I opted to stay on the bike for the entirety of the class, but it was nice to know I could’ve taken a break, unjudged.
- It really is open to anyone. I was wrong in my assumption that the class was only meant for certain demographics.
As with all first-time activities, I suggest talking to your rheumatologist before trying a spin class. I will also say; this level of cycling may be challenging or painful if your RA affects your knees. Beyond that, I highly recommend giving it a try.
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Emil DeAndreis is a baseball coach, and an English professor at College of San Mateo. His memoir, Hard To Grip, chronicles his journey of losing a professional baseball career to rheumatoid arthritis. He lives in San Francisco with his wife. Follow along with Emil on Twitter.