The Cult of Spin
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 is actually 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 cult-like obsessions by their participants. Right now, I'm at Suburban Fitness, a gym in Scituate, Rhode Island, that is one of at least 5000 to have signed on to the Mad Dogg Athletics/Schwinn Spinning program.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 has 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 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 has 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.' "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's 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 are interested in."The roots of Indoor Cycling are all Johnny G. To help him train for a non-stop bike race across the US, 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 teenager 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."Step into a Spin class and the trippy stuff starts right away.Though I was prepped for my ride by the owner of Suburban Fitness, Rick Provost, an intense and thoroughly fit guy who looks like a cross between John Norris and Vanilla Ice, I am clearly unprepared.First, I'm five minutes early, and already the class is full.Also, even though every trainer I've talked to tells me that all sorts of people Spin, forget it. The room is all women. In fact, a glance at the sign-up shows that, of the 100 or so names, exactly five are anything like "Bill" or "Rob."And the women here, they are already Spinning. Whirling away on bikes, lined up like a pack of Tour de Francers, and wearing the padded bike shorts Provost suggested I wear (which I'm not, of course). They are just a vision of sports bras and sweat, and class hasn't even begun.There's no bike for me, so Provost has to ask someone to leave, someone whose name is lower than mine on the list.She is not pleased. "I am on the list," she says. She continues pedaling. "So," she says, and looks forward, bearing down on her Spinner."Since one of the bikes in the room is broken," Provost begins to explain. But no, she'll have none of it. She pulls the brake on her bike and throws him this look. Vicious, is how I'd describe it. It's a "Better check your brake lines before you get into your car, Rick," type look. She stamps out of the room. 'Kay.Now Provost points out what makes an official Mad Dogg Johnny G Spinner Schwinn not at all a stationary bike. First, the seat can slide back and forth to simulate different kinds of riding. Then, rather than a belt that puts tension on a free wheel, the front wheel of a Spinner weighs 40 pounds; so it has the inertia thing. For instance, the direct-drive wheel is hard to start and stop -- if you stop moving your legs, the wheel will start moving them for you. There is also a knob that acts as a standard bike brake, but the knob, when turned, increases the wheel's friction to simulate hills and other terrain.As mood music plays, Provost, who has changed into biking shorts and an official Spin biking jersey, notes that the floor is covered not in carpet but in black rubber to symbolize pavement.The class starts off with light pedaling and an introduction into what the rest of the ride will bring. "Look up to the sky, stretch your arms up to the blue, blue sky," Provost says. Of course, we're all indoors, but behind me, most of the women have their eyes closed anyway."Okay, see your journey -- see your goal," he says. "If you don't have one, you better get one, because we're all going to make it today. We're all together in this, right ladies?" There are yells from the women, all pedaling away now. "Okay, turn your knobs up one complete circle, we're starting," Provost says, as the Cure pumps out of the stereo. And off we (don't really) go.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. This kind of thing is a way for people to try to get control of their lives," says Dr. Doreen Wiggins, a promoter of health and sports and a Brown University clinical professor.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. It's bad if you don't eat, but it's good if you burn enough calories to look lean," says Boston University assistant professor of health sciences Dr. Roger Fielding.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. If they have to take three hours a day to exercise, are thinking about it all day -- 'I have to do this Spinning stuff' -- they become fanatics," he says.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 is 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 cult-like 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 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 icksters.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 $7800 for the 13 bikes at Suburban Fitness). 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 5000 facilities and more than 30,000 certified instructors worldwide, Johnny is sure to be hoisting some hefty green. According to Mad Dogg spokesman Barry Sanders, the company will earn $7 million in 1998, more than doubling its $3 million earnings in 1997.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.' 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," she says. "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. 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.But as for the transcendental aspects of Spinning, fitness writer Shea says, "I think he's gone off the deep end. I think anyone who is really into his sport can think there's a Zen, but I think sitting in a room with a bunch of sweaty people is not Zen."BUT OH, ZEN, I'm so close. Really pounding away now. Springsteen's on the stereo, and after a few songs, the class is really together now, rooting loudly at each hill we climb, at each goal we reach.As the opening guitar of U2's "Bad" echoes through the room, Provost says, "Okay, ladies . . . and David, a big climb here. Let's turn it up two complete circles."I'm thinking two complete levels and the seven-plus minutes of this song and no way is there any hill like that east of the Berkshires. But I do it anyway, twist the tension on the bike higher, start pushing. Feel the burn in my quads.But this odd sensation takes over my left calf. I'm ignoring it -- my eyes are closed. I can see the hill.And even though the music keeps potting in and out on the stereo, I've got it in my head. I am heading into "the zone." I can tell. The "next level" approaches. I'm almost there . . .At this point, the fiercest cramp tears through my calf. It's visibly bunched up into a tiny ball on my leg, screaming, "Hey, ever hear of stretching first? Ever hear of warming up?"But I am too busy crying like a baby in front of 10 middle-aged women still getting up their personal hills to hear it. I'm off my bike, as far from Zen as I have ever been, beating my fist on my poor, poor, bastard of a calf. It finally relents after five minutes."Let's go, David," the women cry out behind me. And, damn me, I remount for the last time.After another half-hour, it's over. And, sitting in the cold fluorescents of the Suburban Fitness locker room, I feel 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 turning up their own knob, 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 are 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 Lincoln Woods. They avoid getting up that last real hill on the way home, when there is no tension knob to choose not to turn any tighter. As Dr. Zaichkowsky says, "They are training virtually for nothing."This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.