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Cycling machines - John C. Kirk

May. 5th, 2008

11:50 pm - Cycling machines

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As I've mentioned before, I'm trying to get back into shape by doing a bit more exercise. The Fitbug is working out quite well, since it gives me a specific target to aim for (revised each week): it started out at 5000 steps/day, and I'm now up to 6900. I don't hit my target every day, but that's ok; it acts as an incentive, and I do modify my behaviour accordingly. I now have a pretty good idea of how many steps it takes to go certain distances (e.g. it's about 2000 steps from the railway station to my flat), so I'll often choose to walk rather than taking the bus.

The main disadvantage to the 'bug is that it treats all steps equally, so walking downhill is the same as running uphill with a heavy rucksack. It more or less evens out, but I did an SJA duty recently (at a netball tournament) where I was on my feet for about 7 hours, mostly standing still; that meant that I missed my target, but I didn't really feel like going for an extra walk when I got home just to make up the quota. I got a bit of extra exercise by fetching balls that had gone off the court; my colleague was quite amused because every time I threw a ball back I'd stick my right foot out behind me (bending my right knee). I wasn't aware that I was doing it, so I'm not quite sure how I developed that habit!

Today I decided to try out another "RPM" class at the gym (cycling machines). It's been a couple of years since I last did one, so the time seemed right. With that in mind, I went out this afternoon and bought some lycra shorts, on the grounds that padding is useful. I wasn't quite sure which size to get (I'm currently a 38" waist), but the guy in the shop recommended XL, so I went for that. I figured that these would be "sacrificial" to some extent, i.e. I'll hopefully slim down fairly quickly, then I won't need them anymore, so I'm not concerned about long term durability. However, it was a bit unfortunate that the seam split on one side when I put them on. It was a fairly small gap (about 2mm), and I could cover it with my T-shirt, so I wasn't too bothered, but by the time I'd finished it was a bigger hole about 1cm in diameter. So, I may need to shift up to XXL temporarily, which is a pity.

Anyway, I then went along for the class. I checked the times on the Virgin Active website, and they have a class from 18:15 to 19:00. I basically planned my day around that, and made sure that I was there in plenty of time. However, it then turned out that there was no class, because it's a bank holiday. There were only two of us who turned up for it, so I'm guessing that the regular attendees were told about this last week, but they really should have updated their website as well.

Since I was there, I decided that I might as well use a cycling machine anyway, so I chose one in the main gym. They had two types of Star Trac exercise bikes there: the "spinning" ones like I used in the RPM class before and a different version with lots of controls. I used the latter, and chose their "Fat Burner" program. This was pretty much a random choice, since there weren't any instructions for the machine, so I wound up poking buttons on a "trial and error" system. The main display then looked something like this:

Bike display

Meanwhile, it looped through various other information, e.g. my effective speed and my rpm (revolutions per minute). It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but basically this program runs for exactly an hour. On the main display, each of the circles would turn solid green in turn, starting in the bottom left corner, then working up each column, left to right. By my count, there were 104 circles altogether, which is a bit of a weird number: it's not a round number by itself (e.g. 100), and it doesn't work out at an exact number of seconds per circle (e.g. 120 circles would be 30 seconds each). I'm not sure why some columns were taller than others; the whole thing just seemed to be a glorified progress bar, and they had a separate timer that was more accurate.

I initially thought that the circles were supposed to measure my effective distance, and that the different height of columns would reflect the gradient (so it would be harder to pedal on an "uphill" bit). Sadly, no. Actually, I found it pretty easy to pedal, although ironically that made it a bit more difficult to do well; if I was on a real bike, I would have changed up a gear, since I couldn't maintain a stable rhythm above 100rpm. There was a control for the level, and I was on level 1 which was presumably the easiest, but I'm not sure what that was supposed to do; it might affect the program as a whole (e.g. changing it to 2 hours) rather than affecting the difficulty of pedalling.

I would have preferred to have a fixed distance to cover rather than a fixed time. That way, I'd have an incentive to pedal faster (i.e. I'd finish sooner). With this approach, any effort on my part seems a bit futile, since the machine gives the same reward for any amount of effort. (In fairness, the machine may have other programs that are more to my tastes.) I'm not sure why this bothered me so much; after all, if I'd done the RPM class then that would have been a fixed 45 minutes of cycling, and I'd have been choosing my own level of effort. One difference is that there'd be an instructor to set the pace, and that would give me something to aspire to, even if I couldn't do it at first.

I think the main problem is that this was just dull, particularly when compared to "real" (outdoor) exercise. When I used to go out running, if I changed my speed then I'd see a difference, i.e. the scenery wouldn't go past as quickly; when I approached the end of the route, I'd basically think "Ok, if I've got any energy reserves left, now's the time to use them - go flat out, then I can collapse once I'm over the line." (That applied particularly to races.) With experience, I'd learn to pace myself properly, particularly allowing for terrain; I wouldn't want to sprint uphill for a long distance, but in some cases I had to charge up a muddy slope quickly, otherwise I'd just slide back down. As for cycling, it's quite nice to go out for a gentle ride in the countryside, and I'd like to take a cycling holiday somewhere like Breton in a few years. If I'm feeling more energetic, the reward for toiling up a huge hill is that you can glide back down it afterwards, or pedal to go even faster; I used to exceed the 30mph speed limit on my bicycle at my old job! By contrast, sitting in the gym for an hour is boring, particularly on my own.

At 19:00, they used the tannoy to announce that the main gym area would be closing in 30 minutes. Again, according to the website the gym was supposed to be open until 22:30, so I assume this means that bank holidays count as Sundays, when the building closes at 20:00. (They close the exercise areas 30 minutes before the building itself, so that people have time to shower and change.) This wasn't a problem for me, since I only had 10 minutes left of my cycle program, but it was annoying.

When I finished the hour, it said that I'd done 16½ miles, and burnt over 600 kcal. I'm not sure about the exact figures, because the machine expects you to do a 2 minute "cool down", and turns itself off if you stop pedalling, so it didn't finish displaying the results. I'm a bit dubious about this distance, since I didn't feel particularly tired; I was sweating a bit, but I wasn't out of breath. So, either I'm a lot fitter than I thought (and I'd have no trouble cycling to/from work everyday) or there's something screwy going on with their calculations. Obviously I didn't literally go that far; in fact, the machine didn't even move 16½ mm. In terms of simulated distance, the difficulty will depend on the terrain; perhaps this was supposed to be downhill, but in that case I could have just put my feet up and coasted! The energy figure sounds a bit more plausible, since I was pushing the pedals around, so it should be able to measure resistance etc. Putting that in perspective, 630 kcal is the equivalent of 1.5L of Pepsi. (Edit: It's also equivalent to about 12,000 steps, according to Fitbug.)

So, all in all this wasn't very satisfying. Still, I'm glad I went, and I'm sure that it was better exercise than sitting in front of my computer. Aside from anything else, walking there and back was good for my step count. I'll try again on Wednesday: hopefully their schedule will be back to normal by then.

Comments:

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From:susannahf
Date:May 6th, 2008 06:43 am (UTC)
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On most exercise bikes, level=resistance. Usually the bars indicate changing resistance, but you probably wouldn't notice this if you were on level 1. Also, iirc, you're not meant to pedal faster, you're meant to keep a steady rpm (around 70-80 is good), and change the level to increase/decrease resistance.
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From:terpsichore1980
Date:May 6th, 2008 10:58 am (UTC)
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The various inductions I have had at various gyms almost always start you off on at least level 4 or 5 on exercise bikes. You wouldn't feel "the burn" at level 1.

To offset boredom, you could either try taking a book / magazine (work particularly well on the type of bikes you sit back on) or some headphones for the gym's tv system. I presume a posh gym like Virgin has a tv system, most such gyms do.
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From:johnckirk
Date:May 6th, 2008 11:59 am (UTC)
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There wasn't a back on the seat to lean against, but I was able to take my hands off the handlebars to drink water without any trouble, so I guess I could read a book/magazine easily enough. They do have a socket for headphones on the bike (apparently linked to the TVs), but they also play music over the general speakers in the gym; I'm a bit concerned that if I crank up the volume on my headphones high enough to drown out the music then it would be bad for my hearing.

Thanks for the tip on the levels, so I'll try that next time. When I first went to the bike, I thought it was broken, because none of the buttons (e.g. "Quick Start") turned on the main display. I asked one of the staff for help, and she explained that I had to start pedalling to turn it on; however, I also told her that I'd never used one before and she didn't give me a general overview or tell me that I shouldn't use it until I've been taught how it works (e.g. for safety reasons), so I just muddled through.
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From:susannahf
Date:May 6th, 2008 01:04 pm (UTC)
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Next time, may I suggest you ask someone? They may not necessarily volunteer information, but that shouldn't stop you from seeking it.
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From:terpsichore1980
Date:May 6th, 2008 01:46 pm (UTC)
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Having used such TVs at gyms, with a reasonably well fitting pair of headphones, you don't actually need to turn it up that loud to hear the tv over the music. You will find it harder to read a book/magazine when the resistance is at a more appropriate level, but some people can manage both, particularly on the recumbant bikes.
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From:totherme
Date:May 6th, 2008 02:02 pm (UTC)
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I used to read a book or paper while I got the exercise started, but would always have to put it down for the proper push as my body started to tire - about 50% or 70% of the way through the program. If I was doing it properly, then I'd be in danger of damaging the book with dripping sweat at that point anyway, so that'd be a good signal to put it down and concentrate on the task in hand ;)
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From:nastyicydeath
Date:May 6th, 2008 01:48 pm (UTC)
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Generally faster is better because you can get the same power with less force. This means that there is less stress on you body and your cardio-vascular system is the part that gets the workout (rather than your leg muscels or joints getting tired). For maximum power you want pedal rpm to be as fast as you can without bouncing around, and you want to keep it steady like susz says. If you are just going to the shops then you might not be worried about getting the maximum possible power. Also, to burn fat you don't want to be going flat out, so doing lower intensity exercise for longer is better. For this, high pedal RPM is still good, you just don't push as hard. Most computer exercise bikes ask for your height and weight and use that to set the level to start with. I get about 120rpm on my proper "going to places" bike, although it might be more if I had drunk 1.5l of pepsi.
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From:totherme
Date:May 6th, 2008 02:00 pm (UTC)
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and my post crossed with yours - never mind :)

To make this consistent with what I say below, note that I was never interested in fat loss per-se. I've always used exercise bikes as a cardio/endurance exercise.

If going flat out isn't good for fat-burn then that's kind of a pity - all the best endorphin effects only kick in when you're going flat out ;)
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From:totherme
Date:May 6th, 2008 01:55 pm (UTC)
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I just checked with nastyicydeath, and he does an average of 115-120 rpm when riding on the road. I don't have a bike computer, so I couldn't tell you exactly what I do atm.

Cyclists are generally encouraged to pedal faster rather than harder. People talk about making the exercise more cardio-oriented and less like weight lifting.

IIRC, when I was regularly using an exercise bike (as opposed to an actual bike), I would try to keep the RPM between 100 and 120. Because I get bored easily, I'd usually alternate cruising (100rpm) and sprinting (120rpm), and often time those sprints to coincide with the uphill bits (the harder bits) on a hill program. I also like to finish properly exhausted, so I'd usually really sprint the last bit. When I first started, that last sprint was 20 seconds long. Then I was able to do 30, 40, 60, 90, then 120.
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