, Salem, MA

March 23, 2013

Cookson: Lessons learned in spinning class

Mary Alice Cookson
The Salem News

---- — Not all of us are cut out to be regular exercisers. While I admire the discipline of it, the minute I commit to a gym membership — the very second I supply my bank’s routing number for the automatic withdrawals I find I’m no longer getting to the class.

I don’t have any earthly explanation for this, but a local health club owner once told me that only 20 percent of people who pay for gym memberships actually use them. So to avoid once again being in that 80 percent of people who just throw their money away, I’m going to stick with being an “irregular exerciser.”

This means I do a variety of exercises in a random way, like reaching out to pet my cat or going Rollerblading. Sometimes I hike or cross-country ski. Other times I walk to the kitchen for a snack or out to the mailbox. Also I do laundry, which is how I injured my rotator cuff.

But if I were to become a regular exerciser, I’d probably choose spinning. I used to spin and loved it (until I bought an ill-fated prepaid punch card and stopped going).

Actually I didn’t love the “spinning” part; I loved “having spun.” Spinning is one of those “hurts so good” activities you appreciate more when you’re finished like how you might view the Boston Marathon from the perspective of the finish line as opposed to a quarter of the way up Heartbreak Hill (not that I know this from any real experience).

Spinning is a bit like being involved in an indoor high-speed police chase in the dark, on hilly terrain, on bikes going nowhere. With strobe lights flashing, you pedal your hardest to the beat of a blaring soundtrack, faster and faster on downhills, then pumping harder and harder on the uphills, sitting way back in the saddle, or standing up on the pedals like you’re on one of those stair climbers, with it on the hardest setting.

You can’t even think about cruising in the dark at some moderate level because if you have a spinning teacher like the fierce yet perky Dani Cairns at The Inner Cycle in Beverly, she will know. And she will make you count your rotations and adjust the tension on your wheel for maximum output. If you’re at an eight instead of a 10, she’ll call you on it.

That’s when you’ll crank down on the pedals and feel your heart beating wildly out of your chest as you struggle to match Dani’s pace. You notice she’s breezily sprinting along (uphill) while you’re gasping for breath, and there’s not a hint of sarcasm in her voice when she announces, “Good news: Only one more tough climb to go!”

As the class groans, you look at the clock that doesn’t seem to be moving and pray for a way out. You don’t think your legs can survive one more rotation. Then just when you’re contemplating sneaking out of class by faking like you need a bathroom break, Dani announces the “cool down.” You ease up on the dial and finally get to spin, feeling pretty pleased with yourself. You’re even happier when you unclip your bike shoes and clip-clop it out of there.

I think spinning teachers deserve a lot of credit — first, for their stamina and secondly, for their belief that we mere mortals can do what they do. Unwittingly they teach us important life lessons.

Here are some things I’ve learned from spinning class:

When your heart beats wildly in your chest, it usually just means you’re fully alive, not that you’re having a heart attack.

If your foot slips off the pedal, put it back on and continue to ride.

If it’s painful, it’s probably doing you some good (but don’t let it get too painful).

Don’t try to match anyone else’s cadence. You have to go at your own pace, unless you are falling way behind and then you might want to pick it up a bit.

Enjoy the downhill sprints when you get them.

Take the uphill climbs standing up, using your own power. Don’t lean too heavily on anyone else.

What you do when the lights go out is your business.

Spinning in place going nowhere is sometimes necessary for growth.

Even when you aren’t getting anywhere, try to enjoy the ride.

If you don’t like the process, at least like the pay-off.

Don’t compare yourself to others. If God wanted us all looking good wearing spandex bike shorts, we’d all have been given the bodies of spinning teachers.

Find your own strengths, and remember to BREATHE. It is necessary!

On a related note, here’s a story from my friend Dr. Jo Zubricki, a Gloucester chiropractor who also likes to spin.

Jo told me that during her spinning class, she had wondered why her instructor always walked between the bikes shouting, “Life’s not all about candy bars!”

Frankly, Jo found the comment odd. Finally one day she inquired, “Is that comment really necessary?”

Yes, the instructor replied. People tend to put too much weight on their arms instead of allowing their legs to do the work.

It turns out that Jo hadn’t heard the woman correctly over the music and the noise of the bikes. When she thought the instructor was shouting, “Life’s not all about candy bars,” she was actually reminding the class to “Lighten up on the handle bars.”

So, here’s another lesson:

Listen carefully, and be sure to check things out when you’re unclear so you don’t misinterpret others’ good intentions.

Yes, life’s not all about candy bars. But if you think that it is, what’s the harm? And if you spin regularly burning 400 to 600 calories per hour, candy consumption shouldn’t really be an issue anyhow.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to those of us who spin “irregularly.”


Mary Alice Cookson is a magazine editor and a Beverly-based columnist. She welcomes comments at