Exercise is crucial at our age. After all, who wants middle-aged spread, or matronly bosoms descending south?! (And no, it’s not “just the menopause”.) That’s a sure way to make us feel sluggish, unattractive, and resigned to looking and feeling old before our time.
Apart from the health problems of putting on weight, we feel better when we exercise. One reason is that each cell in our body, particularly in muscle tissue, contains parts called mitochondria, which break down glucose from the complex carbohydrates we eat (wholegrains, vegetables and fruit) and convert it into energy. The more we exercise, the more mitochondria we develop in each cell.
This increases our ability to store and to utilise energy. This is why the fitter we are, the better we feel: we literally become walking bundles of energy.
So, after a Changing Room Trauma – you know, that moment in a shop when reality stares back at you in the mirror – I resolved to get my body moving and get rid of the lumps and bumps around my middle that weren’t there six months ago. (Going up a dress size is sooo not going to happen.)
I look for some cardiovascular exercise that I might actually enjoy, and will fit into the busy working week, since I know these are the keys to exercising regularly. I pick Psycle, a dedicated indoor cycling club, as it’s round the corner from the High50 office, and there’s an introductory class at 5.30pm on a Tuesday. Perfect: home in time for dinner.
When it opened earlier this year, the Evening Standard called it the high-intensity workout that has seduced Soho fashionistas; Time Out described it as “part club night, part dance class, part spinning session”. BoomCycle in Shoreditch and Holborn runs the same type of class, and SoulCycle in New York (pictured above) has a cult following, including a ton of celebrity fans, and will be coming to London in the new year.
Psycle’s disco lighting and club soundtrack sound like fun, but will it be full of lithe 25-year-olds with thighs of steel? Will Rosanna and I be like mums at the disco? Or worse, will I have a hot flush during the class?!
What is spinning?
A spin class entails cycling on a stationary, indoor bicycle, incorporating various upper body movements while pedalling. It’s high intensity yet low-impact on the joints.
The bike’s resistance can be varied throughout, giving different levels of intensity such a flat sprint, to burn fat and build stamina, to heavier resistance that’s like a hill climb and makes you pedal more slowly, building strength and toning the muscles.
It’s done to music, with the instructor at the front calling out instructions through a mic, and can be 30, 45 or 60 minutes long.
What is spinning good for?
Do it if you want to shape up, shed excess pounds and get really fit. It tones up the muscles, including the thighs, bum, legs, calves and torso. You need to be reasonably fit to begin with. Its numerous celebrity fans include Victoria Beckham, Reese Witherspoon and Lady Gaga.
If you’re very overweight, inactive, or haven’t exercised for a long time, consult your GP first. Otherwise, start with a beginners’ or introductory class.
Our own fitness levels
Jacqui: I have good flexibility and reasonable joint and muscle strength, as I’ve done dynamic yoga every morning for years. But I have poor stamina. I did spin classes in my forties when I was very fit, but haven’t been in a gym for years, and my yoga has become rather less dynamic lately. I run out of breath if I go for a jog and never enjoy it, and with mild wear and tear in one knee joint, running or anything high-impact is no longer an option.
Rosanna: I haven’t been to the gym for years but walk and do yoga occasionally. I have done spin classes in the past but never enjoyed them as I usually felt sick and out of breath. I know I should do some cardiovascular exercise at my age and know that keeping fit wards off depression so am ready to give it a go.
Before the class at Psycle
Jacqui: The staff are welcoming and cheerful, and the club is sleek and clean. Hitting the dark basement studio, music already blasting, is a shock to the senses after a day in the office. Several people are warming up on their bikes, and an instructor with big smile and a funky ’fro adjusts our bikes and gets me into the special trainers provided. (They have a block on the sole that slots on to the pedal, for safety, so your feet can’t slip off.)
Rosanna: Arriving at the gym we are given special cycling shoes which you are clearly not meant to wear between the changing room and the studio. I can’t get them into the pedals without help. We have chosen our bikes beforehand and are in the middle of the room. Everybody looks fit and rearing to go. The loud music boosts my adrenaline and I can feel my competitive spirit rising.
What the class is like
Jacqui: The instructor runs us through what’s going to happen, like when to sit on the saddle, when to lift your bum, how to lean forward, and the like. A house track kicks in and it’s like I’m in a club back in the day hands-in-the-air-like-you-just-don’t-care. This is great!
Soon we get into working the upper body at the same time as pedalling, leaning forward then back, hands in different positions on the handlebars, then twisting to the left and right. It’s all very fast and in time to the music, and I feel energised.
But soon the saddle starts pushing into my groin. I try to get comfortable by sitting on one buttock or the other, but with all the moving around we’re doing, I can’t. I also get a stitch on my left side, which spreads across the abdomen. Rubbing it doesn’t help, and is impossible anyway if I want to keep up with the sitting/standing/arm movements.
We’re quickly instructed to increase the resistance on the bike, but I don’t – I’m in too much discomfort. I try to continue pedalling and keep up with the movements, but as I get hotter (I’ve forgotten to bring water) I need to keep up easing up.
The instructor encourages us all to push on and remind ourselves why we’re here – and seems to be looking straight at me. I think: you have NO IDEA that there are hot needles in my belly right now and this bloody saddle is crushing my lady bits. And has no one told you about women my age and the damn HEAT?!
There is some respite when we do arm exercises with light handweights, as the concentration needed takes my mind off all that. That’s the most fun part of the class.
Finally it ends and we cool down, and I’m so disappointed, because if it hadn’t been for the stitch I could have pushed myself more and it would have been fun.
Rosanna: The instructor indicates which positions we will be in throughout the class: sitting, leaning forward over the handlebars and standing. There is a knob on the bike which turns the resistance up or down and we are told to start on low.
I soon realise that this is also a test of co-ordination. We pedal and lean to the right and left with either our bums sticking out or not. It is quite a challenge to try to pedal to the rhythm of the music but it’s invigorating once you do.
I enjoy it when the music slows down and we change the resistance to high. Standing up and pedalling slowly I can feel the muscles in my thighs really working. I know I’m working hard as sweat is pouring down my neck. This doesn’t happen in my yoga classes.
The music speeds up again and we have to sit back on the saddle, which is so uncomfortable, and take the weights in our hands. It’s good to be sitting but quite painful – at least the arm exercises are not too difficult and I know they are good for the bingo wings.
It is a relief when it ends but I feel I have done my best. I like exercising to music and the energy in the studio was very compelling.
How we feel afterwards
Jacqui: The showers are much nicer than the average gym. Towels and Ila products are provided. But my stomach is swollen up like a balloon and the pain is getting worse. The staff say it’s probably dehydration, and indeed I had sat at my desk for two hours that afternoon without getting up for water.
I suffer all the way home. It finally starts to ease when I get in and drink warm water. It takes two hours for the pain to go, and I can’t eat any dinner. I tell you all this to show how vital it is to be well hydrated.
Next day, I’m fine and my legs and bum don’t ache, but then I didn’t exactly push myself. I want to go again – but fully hydrated and with a bottle of water.
Rosanna: My legs are a bit weak but I feel energised. I can imagine doing this once a week and am looking forward to another class. I will remember to bring water next time too.
Fun factor: Jacqui 6/10. Rosanna 7/10.
Would you do it again? Jacqui: Yes, if someone can tell me how to stop the saddle issue. Rosanna: Yes, it must be easier when you know the routine. I agree that the saddle is just too uncomfortable but maybe that gets better after a few goes.
Spin classes in other areas
Cychocycle, South-West London CychoCycle is a new studio in Mortlake, near Richmond, that’s less full-on than the class we did. It has a lot of over-40s among its clientele. While you cycle your heart rate is monitored, meaning you can work to strict heart rate zones and instructors can keep an eye on your effort level and progression, to get the best out of you, safely. Visit Cychocycle.
Boom Cycle, Shoreditch and Holborn Like Psycle, Boom has high-energy classes with low lighting, a booming soundtrack and instructors that push you. Fun but not for the faint-hearted (though they have classes for all levels). Visit Boom Cycle.
Fitness First, nationwide This might be a better option if you want to try spin but without the disco environment. Fitness First has gyms all over the UK offering spin classes and you can try your first class for free (after that you have to join). Visit Fitness First: Spinning.
LA Fitness, nationwide LA Fitness also has classes across the country. You have to become a member first, but you can join just for one month to begin with. And if you go regularly it may work out a lot cheaper than the fancy-pants dedicated cpin clubs. Visit LA Fitness; Classes.
Jacqui Gibbons is High50’s health editor, edits beauty and lifestyle features, and writes about health trends. Follow her on Twitter @jacqui_journo