Spinning out of control?

Dear Alice,

I am a Spinning instructor and don't know how to respond to exercisers who consistently work above 85 percent of their maximum heart rate. I've learned that less than ten percent of your workouts should be at this high end; therefore, I vary the intensity of my classes. Although I do this, people say that they don't feel like they are getting a workout unless they work that hard. The fitness goal for most of these exercisers is weight control. How would you respond?

Always spinning at 85%

Dear Always spinning at 85%,

It's good to hear that you, as the instructor, are attuned to the well-being and safety of your class participants. Finding creative ways to address attitudes and perceptions surrounding exercise can be an ongoing challenge.

The intensity at which an individual chooses to exercise depends on several things, such as health status, current fitness level, and fitness goals. Every body is different, and sometimes, especially in group exercise situations, competitiveness and/or insecurity triggers the group to conform to a norm (in this case, high intensity spinning). Often, though, a lack of accurate information interferes with people's development of useful attitudes and informed opinions about how they themselves need to exercise. You mention that the main goal for your classes is weight control. Exercising regularly at a high intensity level isn't necessarily the best way to lose/control body weight.

So first, gather the data you need to teach your clients the facts. The conventional heart rate equation may not truly suit everyone but a more accurate way to determine one's training zone takes her/his resting heart rate (RHR) into account. Although it's still based on the estimated maximal heart rate formula, (220 minus age in years), it serves as a better reflection of one's aerobic capacity.

In fact, the most accurate calculation would directly measure a person's functional capacity, or the amount of oxygen consumed during exercise. For most people, the following calculation, known as the Karvonen formula, is fine.

  • [(220 - age in years) - Resting Heart Rate] x Exercise Intensity + Resting Heart Rate

So, a forty year old with a RHR of 47 beats per minute could work within the 65 to 85 percent of maximum heart rate range of 133 to 160 beats per minute. The steps to calculate this would be:

  • 220 - 40 = 180
  • 180 - 47 = 133
  • 133 x 65 % = 86
  • 86 + 47 = 133 beats per minute (low end)
  • 220 - 40 = 180
  • 180 - 47 = 133
  • 133 x 85 % = 113
  • 113 + 47 = 160 beats per minute (high end)

Next, perhaps you can learn more about why your clients believe that they need such intensity to "feel like they are getting a workout." What do you suppose is fueling this attitude? Ask some of your clients, something like, "I notice that you ride really hard when you come to class. Do you spin at that intensity all the time? And if so, what is that about? What is it that you want to happen?" Or, strike up a conversation about specific fitness goals.

Once you have the information you need and a better sense of what is motivating your class participants, you'll be in a better position to intervene. What may also help is to start an ongoing dialogue about individual fitness goals related to spinning. For example, you can explain that an "all out" exhaustive workout isn't appropriate for everyone and/or every day. You can encourage your clients to focus on higher intensity activity some days, while other days concentrate on workouts of longer duration at a lower intensity level. You can also explain that exercisers can engage in "active rest," meaning they don't necessarily have to become couch potatoes on their days off. They can go for a walk, practice yoga, jog, swim, bike, or dance at a much more leisurely pace. To help improve overall fitness, encourage cross-training — running, rowing, swimming. And you can explain the benefits of each of these kinds of movement.

Employing different techniques keeps your classes exciting for your class participants, and for yourself, as well. You said that you already vary the classes' intensity. Many instructors incorporate interval training, which changes the intensity during a class. Participants are challenged by the variety. Another option is to offer a longer class at a slightly lower intensity, for a change of pace.

You have the tools and information to help class participants reach their goals, and at least some of these ideas will make a difference, helping you reach your goal of getting your clients to learn more about what "works"!

Last updated May 11, 2015
Originally published Feb 01, 2002

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