On Spinning, and the Nature of Exercise Class.

Shoutout to my friends K and C for inspiring this post via emoji-laden group text this afternoon. Hopefully this blog provides an answer to the question: “Should I torture myself and sign up for SoulCycle tomorrow with my {cousin, mom, sister, coworker, [insert probably female friend here]}?

If there’s one thing I prize about myself, it’s usually my ability to remain unfailingly honest about my strengths and weaknesses. I am great at reading, writing, and singing. In contrast, I am a truly god-awful athlete with all the grace of drunk baby gazelle. As such, childhood sports teams and P.E. classes were pretty much a recipe for disaster. Though I played soccer from age 5, I never achieved more than a passing mediocrity. When questioned about my involvement, I categorized my skill level as ‘just-good-enough-to-make-the-team-but-never-actually-play.’

P.E. (physical education, or gym class, to some), was a never-ending comedy of errors. No matter how many times they brought out the badminton racquets, I could never actually hit the stupid shuttlecock. When the teacher decreed we could play Wiffle Ball, every other student’s favorite game, I got hopelessly stuck on the ‘whiff’ component. Even my one moment of true athletic glory — hitting a home run when subbing in for an absent player on my brother’s tee-ball team — ended in ignominy when I ran around the bases backwards.

This complete lack of coordination and athletic skill was only compounded by my identity as a fat kid. Even if I had been good at sports — which I really, truly wasn’t — I had no impetus to try and improve, because my peers and teachers just assumed I’d be bad at them anyway.

It wasn’t until I got to high school and met some gym-going friends that I learned exercising could be fun. Looking back on it, they didn’t teach me anything particularly revolutionary. 3 or 4 of us would meet after-school and on weekends at the neighborhood gym. We did crunches and pushups and ran on the treadmill amidst gossip and giggles. Though it was basic, for me it was eye-opening. Working out didn’t have to be undignified agony of gym class, where I felt the weight of classmates’ eyes on my chubby belly, my tree-trunk thighs. Nor was it the slow torture of soccer practice, where I missed goal after goal, was praised only for my ability to knock other girls over with the weight of my bulk. Even though my gym-buddies were thinner than me, they didn’t care about appearances much. We exercised to be healthy, to have an excuse to hang out, to rationalize the bucket of popcorn with our Friday night movie. Those basic workouts set a foundation for regular exercise that I’ve kept into adulthood.

They also opened the door to fitness being a social experience. It was the first time I realized that exercise did not have to be tied to shame, but provided a way to bond with my peers. When I got to college, setting up running dates and weekly gym times was one of the fastest ways I made friends. That was also when I learned that exercise didn’t have to be painful.

When I say that, I don’t mean that a good workout shouldn’t burn, shouldn’t hurt in that perfect way. I mean that, up until about age 18, exercising actually hurt me. My mom, an avid walker who strolled to cardiovascular health with 3-5 miles a day, didn’t really play high-impact sports. My friends were all much smaller than me. So before college, I thought that sports bras were an afterthought, that leggings were an item of clothing for other girls. I didn’t realize that running didn’t have to cause a radiating pain in my chest, that pick-up games of soccer didn’t require a burning red rash between my thighs.

Suddenly, I had friends — avid athletes — to take me aside and show me the right clothes to wear. I learned the indescribable pleasure of running without chafing, of doing burpees without constantly hitting my chest. I also learned that there was a whole lot more to working out than a few crunches here and there.

At first, I tried the offerings at the university gym. BodyPump, yoga, pilates, kickboxing. There were things I loved and things I truly hated. I tried a spinning class or two taught by a friend-of-a-friend, but the experience didn’t stick in my mind much.

It wasn’t until I graduated that I tried spinning again. A local fitness boutique was offering customers a free class at a new, metrics-based spinning studio: Flywheel.

Copyright 2016 Business Insider.
At Flywheel: bikes on bikes on bikes. Copyright 2016 Business Insider.

This was exercise I could get behind. It wasn’t just tolerable, but exhilarating. The focus on quantifiable metrics — resistance and speed and class ranking — created a concrete focus for my analytical mind. The blaring club music, while far from my usual preference, gave a clear beat for my legs to pump to. The lack of strange movements or balancing acts  — just climbing hills and sprinting across flats, with a little weight-training thrown in for good measure — engendered a sense of accomplishment. The pristine locker room, with its fancy spa products and electronic lockers and free water and fruit, offered a tranquil environment to take a plunge and chat with my fellow riders. All the things that I’d previously despised about group exercise — the kumbaya moments of contrived self-reflection, the inescapable judgement from your peers as they spotted your form in the mirror — were negated by the blood-pumping, screaming encouragement of the instructors and the dark, club-like atmosphere of the room. When I moved to Europe, I kept exercising, but no yoga class or fitness club gave me quite the thrill that I got from my Flywheel experience.

Copyright SoulCycle 2016
Sunshiny bikes at SoulCycle. Copyright SoulCycle 2016

When I came back stateside, I got to experience another truly elite spinning phenomenon: the original boutique fitness studio, SoulCycle. A good friend of mine from college had become an instructor, and graciously allowed me to give his class a try. As expected, he was a brilliant teacher. Motivational and energetic, with a great ear for music and an innate talent for performing, from R, I expected no less. Still, as much as I love him, the SoulCycle concept just isn’t a great one for me. It’s too granola-crunchy, too contingent on personal growth and inner peace. As someone with a love-hate relationship with both my body and with exercise, being told to ‘push for your personal best’ means little to me. My best when I’m sweaty, tired, and annoyed, squinting into a room lit by candles, means something completely different every time. Encouraging me to meditate whilst I’m cycling my legs at 95 revolutions per minute mostly makes me want to punch someone in the face. Most especially, as someone with really poor spacial awareness, telling me to turn a tiny knob a quarter or half-turn does not compute. My brain has no clue how to process such instruction. Asking me to do a push-up or a dance move while I am riding a bicycle is something my baby-gazelle self is truly incapable of. Leaving SoulCycle, I missed the straightforward and quantifiable nature of Flywheel, the specific milestones of effort I could reach for, the sense that I could see marked and measurable improvement with each class.

Don’t get me wrong: getting to attend these classes at all is a privilege. They’re hugely expensive — I can’t afford more than 4 or 5 classes a month, if that. When I visit R, I’m the first one to hop on a SoulCycle bike in the very front row. But my relationship with exercise is complicated, and if I’m going to shell out for an expensive class, I want it to be one I truly enjoy. I want it to be the class that makes me forget all about my soft tummy and jiggly arms, and focus on the simple joy of physical exertion. For me, that’s Flywheel. If  you’re looking for a spin class experience, it’s one I can highly recommend.

–S

Day 31: January 31, 2017

 

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