Let’s Go For a Ride

A tour through the delusional world of indoor cycling and the bona fide route to longevity

By Ashley Whitson

Imagine a dark fetid room with rows of equally spaced, uniform stationary bikes and an out-of-place disco ball suspended from the ceiling. The rows of bikes form a rectilinear arrangement where all the bikes face an innermost platform that elevates a sole bike mounted like a pulpit for the instructor. This reverent stage is adorned with several candles to motivate believers into thinking this room is a spiritual realm. Here, is where we will spend the next forty-five minutes on the road to self-actualization, while somehow moving absolutely nowhere. We have been promised that on this journey boundaries will be broken and lives will be changed. There are about fifty other devotees in the audience with us, ready to embark on a quest as a community of warriors.

Our lofty guide, a.k.a. disc jockey has chosen the beat from a preselected iTunes playlist to lighten the grind. The class pedals together to match the beat…one two, one two… We are now part of a “movement”, one where anyone can be an athlete. However, to fully belong to this branded tribe, we must purchase a repeat burnout tank and shiny leggings stamped with an empowering company logo.

The dynamo D.J. solicits us to close our eyes, visualize achievement, and harness our inner strength. Now that we’ve readied our spiritual faculties, it is time to enhance our bodies… in a seated position. We must be working hard as an aqueduct of salty sweat falls from our backs and brows, but this may be ever so slightly aided by the room’s thermostat pushing hyperdrive and those fifty radiating bodies filling the rows next to us. It is proclaimed we are looking good as we advance ourselves to the “next level”. We are athletes.

Back to Reality

This is what modern exercise looks like. It’s social. It’s sexy. It’s entertainment. It’s institutionalized and formulaic. The instructors are always youthful and attractive. Accredited and experienced? Perhaps a few, but this is not relevant. Instructors audition for the job and attend “the university of how to be a rock star.” This is indoor stationary cycling. And it has recently vanquished foundational tenants of training.

The workout is quick and we don’t have to learn how to actually move our bodies safely in space. The largest cycling studio that has now become ubiquitous, claims that riders will “gain strength that lasts beyond the studio walls.” Unfortunately, the founders did not seem to realize that life does not just occur solely in the sagittal plane (front to back movements) with our feet strapped down, devoid of proprioception. Or, that two pound weights are just not going to cut it for real strength gains and muscular endurance. We are not effectively working our gluteal muscles that are already shut down from too much sitting, with their so called “squats” that never include full hip extension. We may do a hundred crunches on the bike without actually helping our cores to function better and may even be priming our bodies for injury. There is no concern over shoulder stability and proper form as everyone in the class nose-dives into push-ups by collapsing onto the bike and neck muscles are further over worked as a result poor breathing mechanics. 

Rather than indulging this insidiously lazy form of exercise and perpetuating the idea of a quick fix that we see with every fleeting fad that is the “next best thing” in health and nutrition, perhaps we should educate our bodies so that by the time we reach the ripe age of eighty, we still have a chance to get around without a walker. Unfortunately, I do not see this trend going away anytime soon as this industry is growing and indoor cycling companies are preparing for IPOs.

A Return to Primal Movement?

One popular cycling company claims that their experience is “primal”. Primal movement patterns are a combination of basic movements that humans innately explore during growth and development, including rolling, crawling, pushing up, bending, lunging, squatting, and walking. In order to gain authentic strength and condition our bodies while remaining injury free, these fundamental movements must have minimal dysfunction.  As children we move well for the most part, and then our preferred activities, excessive sitting, and previous injuries cause imbalances in mobility and stability. Our bodies will then create compensations in order to complete given tasks. This is why Gray Cook, MSPT, OCS, CSCS, author of the book Movement, developed the Functional Movement Screen. The screen sets a standard that identifies movement limitations and asymmetries and how to improve them. Now cycling is more active than walking. So if we are doing an activity that is more challenging than walking, perhaps we should first have a movement screen so we can set our bodies up for success rather than breakdown. The biggest problem with indoor cycling and other fitness trends is that we are doing it without any understanding of how to move our bodies properly and are putting fitness on top of dysfunction. This can only lead to injury.

Postural Restoration

In addition, we should note that all humans are asymmetrical beings. Simply put, our liver is on the lower right and our hearts on the upper left. We have three lobes of the lungs on our right and two on the left. Our primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm is larger and stronger on the right. These asymmetries of our systems is well documented (Zaidi, 2011; Arun, 2004; Wolpert, 2005; Vallortigara and Rogers, 2005; Lee et al., 2013).

The respiratory system and position of the diaphragm and its attachments at the sternum, ribs, thoracic spine and lumbar spine directly affect the position of the skeleton and muscular function.  The asymmetry of the diaphragm creates a dominant pull of the lumbar spine to the right which results in commonly activated muscle patterns and skeletal positions that are asymmetric, IN ALL HUMANS! This pull of the lumbar spine to the right causes the pelvis to rotate to the right and drop forward, putting our spines in too much extension, and an upper torso that rotates back to the left so we can orient ourselves forward. This underlying human pattern also has effects up to the neck and head as well as down to the legs and feet. The way in which people compensate for these asymmetries varies as well as the injuries that occur as a result of repeated activities in poor positions. The Postural Restoration Institute specializes in restoring proper position and movement patterns through re-educating the brain in breathing mechanics and muscle chains. According to Postural Restoration Clinician and physical therapist, Lori Thomsen, bicycle seat position and the fit of the bike should be specific to the rider, not one size fits all. She suggests that cleat wedges, added height to the right side of the saddle, and placing your seat back are passive alterations to adjust for certain asymmetries.

Sitting and Exercising

Is cycling in and of itself a bad thing? Of course not. It is a great form of low-impact cardiovascular fitness. It is fun, easy to learn, and time efficient; especially when used as a mode of transportation. But even the cardiovascular benefit of indoor cycling can be improved upon. The handle bars of the bike are fixed. Cycling is like walking in the fact that our limbs move in opposition. These are natural reciprocal movements where rotation should occur in the mid-thoracic spine. Unfortunately, most people have locked up ribcages as a result of poor breathing. So with fixed handlebars, rotation will be forced to occur at the lumbar spine or sacrum during pedaling. Just look at people walking down the street. How many do you see whose arms swing freely as a result of movement in the ribcage and how many do you see which stiff torsos and either arms that move at the elbow joint, minimally at the shoulder, or not at all? The lumbar spine and sacrum need more stability and less movement. But if you are sitting on a bike with too much flexion of the lumbar spine combined with rotation at the lumbar vertebrae, you are setting yourself up for disaster.

Prolonged sitting has been cited as a factor in the development of back pain (Pearcy MJ: Twisting mobility of the human back in flexed position, Spine 18;114, 1993). Our culture has become increasingly sedentary. We sit at work, we sit in our cars, and then we come home and sit on our couches. Now we want to sit when we exercise. The placement of the handlebars forces the spine to remain in a flexed position. Over time this position can change the curves of our spines which will not only cause problems at the vertebrae, discs and nerves but in the orientation of the shoulder girdle, ribcage, and pelvis right on down to the knees, ankles, and feet.

How to Cycle Healthy

Depending on where you live, I would much rather see people riding out door and experiencing the challenges of real terrain. Unless you are very disciplined and motivated it is tempting to take the easy road and keep the resistance low in a large class setting. But if you are riding out in the world and are presented with a real hill to climb you may be more motivated to reach the top and will most likely feel a higher sense of accomplishment. The true happiness earned from completing a challenging feat will more likely go farther and continue to motivate you towards the next challenge.

There are many ways to diversify a balanced training program, and indoor cycling can surely be one of them in proper doses. However, let us not allow sleek and polished packaging to fool us into thinking that this form of exercise is our physiological savior that will elevate us to our attain our most aspirational fitness goals. Cycling classes simply provide a place of convenience to get in a quick sweat but should never be the staples of any healthy fitness program. Life involves tri-planar activity- sagittal, coronal, and transverse. Training the body to work well in all three planes is required for healthy biomechanics. So I highly suggest getting assessed by a movement professional like a physical therapist, chiropractor, strength coach, athletic trainer or massage therapist who are trained in Functional Movement Systems and/or Postural Restoration before pursuing any high level activity. Educate your body to move well for a long time, break away from the crowd and create a healthy cycle. Others are sure to follow.

Published January 13th, 2016

Ashley Whitson has over 10 years of experience working with people of all ages and ability as a personal trainer and a group fitness instructor.

She is an American Council on Exercise (ACE) Certified Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor certified through the Kane-Kinected Pilates Center, Functional Movement Systems (FMS) Professional, NeuroKinetic Therapy (NKT) Practitioner, Pre/Post Natal Exercise Specialist certified through The American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA), a StrongFirst Kettlebell Instructor (SFG), an Instructor of the Martha Graham Dance Technique through the Martha Graham Dance Center, and holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Dance from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ashley is currently taking courses through The Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) and working towards her Doctorate in Physical Therapy at Hunter College.

Ashley has appeared in several publications as a fitness model and is a writer for The Epoch Times.

As a professional dancer, Ashley performed with The Martha Graham 2 Dance Ensemble, The Martha Graham Dance Company as a member of The Cercando Picasso Italian Tour, 360 Degrees Dance Company, David Grenke TICM, and more.