John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Cycling machines

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.
Tags: clothing, cycling, fat, running, walking

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