Cover Story: The Cult of Spin

The newest fitness craze attracts legions of loyal fans, but how healthy is it?

 
Cincinnatian Barb Phillips, a Spinning master trainer



When you walk into the room, what you notice first is the thick scent of candles. The fluorescents have been turned off, and the only direct light comes from two candles, their heavy scent mingling with the tangy odor of sweat. On the wall a pair of posters show the intense orange and red of sunset over the captions "Focus" and "Inspiration."

But your attention is drawn forward, to the front of the room, to the altar, where a microphone sits on top of a stereo that will soon churn out carefully choreographed Rock and New Age music. Oh yeah, a stationary bike is up there, too.

Although this might sound like some neoteric religious experience, it actually is one of the biggest fads in exercise today. It's Indoor Cycling, and it is the latest heir in a line of exercise programs that have inspired cultlike obsessions by their participants.

The scene described is at Suburban Fitness, a gym in Scituate, R.I., that's one of at least 5,000 to have signed on to the Mad Dogg Athletics/Schwinn Spinning program. With minor changes, it's also the scene at Revolutions, an East Hyde Park facility that's Cincinnati's first spinning-only gym.

The physical part of this program is simple: Get on a modified stationary bike and pedal your gourd off for 50 minutes.

But Spinning is not simply an exercise craze — an entire mind/body dogma goes with it, one that includes words like "visualization," "personal journey" and "transcendence," and one that's attracted a following of more than a million people worldwide.

And Spinning even has its own guru, Johnny G, who appears on his Web page (www.spinning.com) dressed in karate garb, his long black hair pulled back samurai-style. Ocean waves crashing around him, he sits with his legs folded, his hands together in a meditative way and his eyes closed. If a normal exercise program represents one spoke in the wheel of total mental and physical health, the point of Spinning, which Johnny G invented, is "to complete that wheel, to be the other spokes." To do this, Johnny has created a complete program including diet suggestions and inspirational readings.

And don't think for a second that all of this stuff — anything, in fact, with the word "Spin" in it — hasn't been copyrighted. This assertive trademarking (and the aggressiveness with which Johnny G and his company, Mad Dogg Athletics, defend those trademarks) is just one of the things about Spinning that's raised the eyebrows of fitness experts who say that Johnny G is just a millionaire shyster selling transcendence to a spiritually bereft culture.

"Whenever there is money involved, you wonder about somebody's motives," says Dr. Jeff Martin, an associate professor of sport and exercise psychology at Wayne State University in Michigan and a former world-class distance runner.

Worse, say doctors and psychologists, the intensity and dogma that are the norm for Spin can lure people with low self-esteem and serious body-image problems into a world in which exercise addiction hides a range of psychological problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia.

"There's something going on with group dynamics, framing it with candles and lights," Martin says. "A lot of people are looking for meaning in their lives, people trying to get comfortable with themselves. (But) the non-professional in me says, 'You know, this is a crock.' "

Latest and Greatest
Since the beginning of the fitness boom of the 1980s, a line of exercise programs has captured our consciousness. First, aerobics had the most cachet, with Jamie Lee Curtis' tights-clad buns in 1985's Perfect inspiring runs on health club memberships and a marketing blitz that vaulted companies like Reebok and LA Gear into stratospheric tax brackets. If a gym didn't have aerobics, then step, then a juice bar, it couldn't compete.

Now, Indoor Cycling is dominating the health club scene, selling out classes and inspiring devotional behavior by its followers. Says Andy Fitzgerald, owner of Gold's Gym in Worcester, Mass., and a national presenter for Mad Dogg Athletics, "It's huge. Any club that doesn't have an indoor-cycling program is truly at a competitive disadvantage. People walk through the door now and say, 'Do you have Spinning?' That's what they're interested in."

Barb Phillips, owner of Revolutions and a Spinning master trainer, says Cincinnati is a little behind the curve compared to fanaticism on the coasts.

"The program is growing and people don't know what's happening yet," Phillips says, noting that she gets a lot of calls from curious Cincinnatians who haven't heard of the new program. "In the near future it's going to be like step — no step, no people. ... I think it will get to a universal level. The key is to teach it properly."

The roots of Indoor Cycling are all Johnny G. To help him train for a non-stop bike race across the United States, Johnny G (whose last name is Goldberg) invented an indoor training bike that simulated the weight and friction of a touring bike. He eventually began to train others on the indoor machines, and so goes the American Dream: Johnny had a gold mine on his hands.

He coupled Spinning with what he calls the spiritual "search for answers," which he started as a teen-ager in his native South Africa, struck a licensing deal with Schwinn and designed a certification program for instructors. And a new exercise fad was born.

Today, there are three main Indoor Cycling programs — the Mad Dogg/Schwinn version, a Reebok version and a Keiser program. But Mad Dogg, based in Southern California, owns 85 percent of the market. It certainly is the most renowned and the one that leans most heavily on the visualization trip.

"There is this whole mind-body connection," says Fitzgerald. "You literally close your eyes and for 40 minutes you take a journey."

Terms like journey, visualization and transcendence (words that Johnny uses endlessly in conversation) are what have hooked trainers, who, in turn, serve as disciples, spreading the message of Spin. Says one Rhode Island Spin trainer of Johnny's message, "Personally, I believe in it. It's important to us to be part of a bigger scheme of things."

"A New Identity for People"
There are a few main reasons people say they Spin, the key themes being "calories," "inches" and "the next level" of workout that leads to more of the magic high caused by endorphins, a chemical the brain releases during exercise.

"With Spinning, you get a high level of endorphin release, which gives a general spirit of well-being," says Provost.

Whether the endorphin high exists is, in itself, a debate among scientists, many of whom say the feeling of well-being that Spinners get could actually be the result of something else entirely — an exercise addiction stemming from the obsessive-compulsive symptoms surrounding such issues as low self-esteem and self-worth.

Spinning, with its combination of 750-calorie-an-hour sweat-machine tactics and its spiritual doctrine, offers an easy out to people looking for control and meaning in their lives.

"In our lives, we're very externally motivated people under the influence of what other people think about us," says Dr. Doreen Wiggins, a promoter of health and sports and a Brown University clinical professor. "This kind of thing is a way for people to try to get control of their lives."

Spinning, and other intense exercise programs, allows people to control their caloric intake in extreme but socially acceptable ways.

"The excuse that one's so thin is that she's working out all the time," says Boston University assistant professor of health sciences Dr. Roger Fielding. "It's bad if you don't eat, but it's good if you burn enough calories to look lean."

On a more general level, he says, "It gets outside of fitness. One of the reasons people work out is for body image, and a lot of the reasons people work out is from some (incorrect) sense of body image."

So while burning a few calories isn't a bad reason to do something that, after all, is damn good for the heart, the desire for control can get out of hand. Boston University sports psychologist Leonard Zaichkowsky compares it to alcoholism.

"When you get to the extremes, it is dysfunctional," he says. "If they have to take three hours a day to exercise, they're thinking about it all day — 'I have to do this Spinning stuff' — they become fanatics."

Sarah Bowen Shea, a San Francisco-based freelance sports and fitness writer in her early 30s, understands exactly how exercise, and Spinning in particular, might be addicting.

"I think a lot of people feel like they run away from their problems by doing it," she says. "If you have a marriage or a job spiraling out of control, (this) is something they can control."

Shea knows a bit about exercise addiction: Though she doesn't think she's an obsessive exerciser, she has not missed a single day of exercise in four years. In fact, she says, "It's a source of pride for me. I'm just worried about the crash that I'm in for when I stop."

Overall, intensive exercise offers people "a unique sense of identity," Zaichkowsky says. "It's almost cultlike behavior. It is kind of a new identity for people. Pretty soon there is going to be a church for exercise."

And Johnny G, of course, will be its Jerry Falwell. More than any other Indoor Cycling program, the Johnny G/Mad Dogg program emphasizes the spiritual journey. According to Maria Vachon, the group exercise director at the Brookline and Cambridge branches of Healthworks, a women's fitness facility in Boston that offers a Spin program, "Mad Dogg training tries to impose on the instructors that they are trying to find a way to connect their mind to their muscles. Your ride is a journey. You're going somewhere. You're not just sitting on your bike and pedaling. If it was just sitting on a bike pedaling, it would be the same as riding a stationary bike."

Indeed, for Johnny, the whole point of Spinning is to make people healthier in a spiritual way.

"There are two ways to get spiritually healthy — one is to work the body from the inside out, the other from the outside in," he says. "I wanted a tool that would translate the barrier, to push very heavily into the philosophical while pushing hard physically."

But not everyone agrees that exercise is the place to get spiritually fulfilled or that Johnny G is the man to do the fulfilling. Wiggins, who has seen many of Johnny's videos, says, "(Johnny) is compulsive, he's an egomaniac, he is a guru, he is mesmerizing. He definitely has some power that has attracted a lot of people."

The concern is that Johnny is using his spiritual message to prey on a culture that has increasingly found the traditional venues of spiritual fulfillment — religion and politics — devoid of value, both having proved themselves to be run by greedy tricksters.

Get With the Program
Though Johnny G and Mad Dogg aren't exactly hypnotizing folks into buying Spin bikes and its program, it's clear that he is not in the business simply to "doggedly pursue his dream of improving people's lives through exercise," as his Web page contends.

Johnny G gets a cut of every Johnny G Spinner Schwinn bike bought. (Provost says he paid $7,800 for the 13 bikes at Suburban Fitness; Phillips has 21 specially designed Schwinn bikes at Revolutions.) Plus, in order to become a certified Spinning gym like Suburban Fitness, at least six trainers must shell out $275 each to Mad Dogg to attend a one-day seminar and pass a test that, according to a Braintree trainer who took it, includes multiple-choice questions like "Why is hydration important?" and short-answer questions like "What did you think of the certification process?"

With 5,000 facilities and more than 30,000 certified instructors worldwide, Johnny is sure to be hoisting some hefty green.

And there is also an entire catalogue of Spinning products, including sports bras, stickers, fleece outerwear and "antibacterial" padded biking shorts with a Johnny G copyrighted Spinning label that run $53.95 a pair. And let's not forget the slew of videos, a book and a Nike/Spinning shoe on the way.

Then there are the copyrights, the golden goose that forces gym owners to either adhere to the Spin program — buying Johnny G bikes, going through his certification process and signing his licensing agreement — or be forced to tell those interested in Spinning that they do not, in fact, offer Johnny G's program.

Sonja Anastasie, cofounder of the Crank Cycle indoor-cycling studio in Worcester, Mass., bought the bikes and said so in her brochure. Then someone faxed her brochure to Schwinn.

"Schwinn basically said, 'You need to run the program the way we tell you to. Just sign our licensing agreement and you'll be all set,' " she says. "But I didn't want to be told how to run my program. It appears to be, I hate to use the word 'scam,' a way to channel the program into a promotion of their product. You don't see Reebok ... and Keiser doing that."

Johnny contends that he enforces the copyrights and certification standards because the educational aspects are an essential part of the program. Besides, he says, he did the work and therefore deserves the money. The other programs "haven't gone through the mettle," he says.

"People laughed at me for 12 years," Johnny says. "When you see a Spinning logo, it stands for something that was born in my heart and soul, with goodness and health and fitness in mind."

Most people agree that Johnny G is a driven athlete. He sits on both the California Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and the advisory board for Women's Fitness magazine.

After my own Spinning experience, I sit in the cold fluorescents of the Suburban Fitness locker room feeling pretty much at peace. There's a bathroom here, hot water. All my stuff is waiting for me in a locker. The popularity of Spin, I realize, is the fact that visualization of experience is not actually experience at all. I'm still, after all, in the locker room. I never left the building.

Johnny says that this is one of the points of the program — because Spinning participants are in charge of creating their own hill in their mind, "You cannot fail to get up that hill." And this inability to fail, he says, means you're guaranteed a self-esteem boost, a positive and healthy internal experience from Spinning.

So people Spin, sweat, "take a journey" without risking, say, getting lost or a major accident. They get to control their lives in every possible way for an hour.

But in doing so, they avoid the real journey, the push through the fall leaves of Eden Park. They avoid getting up that last real hill on the way home, when there's no tension knob to choose not to turn any tighter.

As Zaichkowsky says, "They're training virtually for nothing."



DAVID ANDREW STOLER writes for the Boston Phoenix, where a version of this article originally appeared. DARLENE D'AGOSTINO contributed to this story.

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