A Fresh Spin on Cycling, Running and The Weight Loss Debate

Over the last while, an article I wrote several years ago about spinning not being the optimal exercise for weight loss has been attracting considerable interest and a spirited debate in the comments section from the “pro-spin” and “anti-spin” camps.

Nota Bene
It goes without saying that my philosophy is that any exercise is better than no exercise. So if a workout class/weight supported exercise is the only thing you are currently willing or physically able to do, by all means you’ll get a better result doing that than by sitting on you couch. And there are many physiological benefits to all exercise, not just fat loss.

However, my advice that spinning is a sub-optimal exercise selection for a typical gym-goer is targeted to the 2-3x/week crowd who are attempting to best use their exercise selection to improve their physique.

Much of the “you don’t know what you are talking about” type of comments seem to center around the assumption that:

  1. I’m suggesting that steady-state running is ideal for weight loss (not really)
  2. Spinning can’t produce weight loss (it obviously can, just less effectively than other approaches)
  3. I believe that weight loss is best produced through exercise (not on your life!)

However, many people missed that my argument is more concerned with the physiological reality that across a range of exercise intensities: running burns more calories than cycling*.

* I’ll review some of the science on running vs. cycling later this week, as well as some data on the use of RPE for gauging exercise intensity across exercise modalities. I warn you, it gets a little technical so if that’s not your thing, feel free to skip it. *

Therefore, if you are someone with limited exercise time but who wants to expend a greater number of calories using cardiovascular activity, then running is the better option.

Since a lot of “pro-spin” people got upset by my position, I might point out that this isn’t just my opinion, but also the current position espoused by the The American College of Sports Medicine.

Below is an excerpt from their Energy Expenditure in Different Modes of Exercise summary paper:

Non-Weight-Bearing versus Weight-Bearing Modalities
Cycling and recumbent cycling are two very popular non-weight-bearing exercise modes, whereas walking and jogging are popular exercises in the weight-bearing category. At the same level of intensity, most persons will expend more calories performing a weight-bearing activity. An additional benefit of weight-bearing exercise is maintaining bone mass and preventing osteoporosis. However, with cycling and recumbent cycling there is much less trauma to the muscles and joints, heart rate is generally lower, and thus longer exercise bouts are possible.

So with that out of the way, let me address a few of the other points that still seem to confuse people.

Many people jumped to the conclusion that I’m endorsing running as a primary weight loss tool, which definitely isn’t the case.

I very rarely suggest to my weight loss clients that they take up distance running. Running for multiple hours each week tends to be be incredibly stressful on the joints, particularly for people carrying excess body fat.

In fact, my overall position is that unless you are a serious athlete who trains an hour or three daily, expecting any exercise routine to lead to an appreciable amount of weight loss is pretty unrealistic for most people.

Before anyone writes in telling me your personal story of how much weight you lost after only going to XYZ fitness class, let me congratulate you for your tremendous accomplishment. Losing weight and keeping it off is hard work.

And let me also point out you are a statistical outlier who did a much better job picking your parents than did most of North America, based on the “responsiveness to exercise genes” you received. 

I’ve reviewed some of the data looking at cardiovascular exercise as a weight loss tool in earlier blog posts, and the data is particularly bleak in females:

Now this isn’t to say my position is that “exercise is useless”, because nothing could be further from the truth.

But if I had to simplify my position on optimizing body composition into one line it would read as follows:

Diet manipulations are what predominantly drive fat loss; whereas exercise is essential for protecting or building lean mass.

Everyone trying to lose weight really needs to read that last line a dozen times.

Better yet, print it out and paste it on your fridge to remind yourself of this every day.

Mind you, higher volumes of weekly moderate intensity physical activity do seem to play an important role in preventing weight regain, once weight has been lost.

However, considering that most recreational exercisers in Canada allocate, on average, only about 3 hours of physical activity per week1, then any exerciser looking to optimize physique (and not simply health), is better served allocating their workout time towards lean mass enhancement.

In other words, if you are a recreational exerciser who simply wants to “look good naked” and “not have the osteoporotic physique of Gwyneth Paltrow“, then your weekly exercise regimen should consist of 2-3 bouts of resistance training, supplemented with as much cardiovascular training as your personal preferences, and time allocated for weekly exercise, dictate.

So my “spin isn’t an ideal choice for weight loss” stance isn’t born out of a hatred for spin. Truth be told, I, like most people, find the thought of a spin class far more mentally stimulating than the thought of running on a treadmill for an hour.

But just because something is “more fun” doesn’t make it optimal for our goals (i.e. eating chocolate cake is more fun than eating Brussels sprouts). Therefore, my coaching advice for body composition change still remains:

Fat Loss Coaching 101
if you are trying to optimize your physique, spending 60 of your 180 weekly exercise minutes on a cardiovascular exercise class primarily focused on building lower-limb strength-endurance isn’t exactly an optimal use of your time.

One thing the field of exercise physiology has established is that with training, the human body learns how to be more efficient/economical in fueling > 60 minutes of work (be it running, cycling, swimming, resistance training).

In other words, as performance (or exercise tolerance) improves for 60 minute of continuous physical activity (e.g. an exercise class), much of that improvement in performance comes from an improvement in movement economy.

What does this mean?

It means that performance improves when our bodies learn how to expend less energy to accomplish the same amount of work. This phenomena is essential to becoming a kick-ass endurance athlete, however, becoming more efficient is not ideal if what you are seeking is fat loss.

A much better way to conceptualize training for fat loss is to adopt a performance-oriented focus.

In other words, instead of training your body to tolerate longer periods of exercise (because unless you have an hour or more per day for exercise, this approach stops working pretty quickly), you will produce fat loss more effectively by thinking about the question: how can  I get stronger or faster?

That’s why for anyone who enjoys cardiovascular activity, a better use of limited exercise time is to focus on covering a fixed distance faster (say 1-5 km for running, 10-20 km for cycling), as opposed to trying to fill up an hour’s time with more work (be it running or cycling).

In other words, you’ll get far more bang from your proverbial “training buck” if you attempt to drop your 5 km run time from 30 minutes, down to 20 minutes.

*The energy cost for a 70 kg individual to run 5 km in 20 vs. 30 minutes is essentially the same. However, covering the distance in a shorter amount of time gives you extra time to spend on mobility work, resistance training or just spending more time with your family.*

So while I’ll readily acknowledge that cardiovascular training has many other health benefits, in terms of optimizing body composition, long periods (> 30 minutes) of cardiovascular exercise aren’t the best use of any recreational exerciser’s time.

And recall, this “lack of fat loss impact from longer duration cardiovascular training” tends to be even more pronounced in females than in males.

If you enjoy cardio for cardio’s sake, then by all means continue doing it. But if you are looking to optimize fat loss, then you’ll get way more benefit from adopting the following “best practices for a lean physique”:

  1. Get adequate sleep!
  2. Find a calorie-appropriate diet you can follow for the long-term.
  3. Perform 2-4 resistance focused workouts/week to protect your lean mass.
  4. Add 1-2 short duration, high-intensity aerobic training sessions.
  5. With whatever time remains, choose whatever activity you enjoy.

Till next time, train hard and eat clean!

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Exercise & Weight Loss

  1. Colley RC et al. Physical activity of Canadian adults: Accelerometer results from the 2007 to 2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey. Available online: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2011001/article/11396-eng.htm