Feet spinning wildly. Favorite tunes playing in the background. Fans to cool you down. Spinning can be great fun, but is it as good for you as feeling the wind blowing through your hair on the open road?
Whichever way, cycling is great for cardio, and is even recommended for people who have chronic stroke to help their heart rate recover.
If you’re into indoor cycling, then you know that spinning can also be a highlight in your week. We daresay it’s one of the things you’ve missed most during lockdown. Heck, you might even feel inspired to bust out of that dark room and take your pedaling power out onto the road.
If you can crush 20 miles in a 45-minute class, surely you can take on a road ride or your first sprint triathlon, right?
Well, kind of. Before you hit the road, there are a few things you should know. In this article, we compare the health benefits of spinning and cycling.
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The benefits of riding a stationary bike
From the indoor cycling side of the story, there are some major benefits that you can’t get from riding outside: An ultra-fast, intense, stress-free workout, for one.
If you’re short on time and gear, indoor cycling is an easy go-to, and you’ll never have to worry about changing a flat tire or following traffic laws.
It’s also pretty liberating to shut your eyes (a big no-no while cycling on roads), zone out, and let your legs do the work. (Seriously, don’t cycle outdoors with your eyes shut — here’s our guide to bike safety.)
Indoor cycling “is the closest I can get to meditating,” says Emily Southworth, lead instructor at Recycle Studio in Boston.
While most stationary bikes have a weighted flywheel on the front (usually weighing around 40 pounds) to mimic what you’d feel outdoors, this weight builds momentum as you cycle. The extra weight makes it a little easier than pushing your own body weight on a flat road or up a hill.
You can also, however, adjust the difficulty of your spin in a more controlled way than simply picking a different hill up which to cycle when outdoors.
However, you won’t get the benefits if you don’t get the technique right — learn more here.
The research: Does riding a spin bike help weight loss?
So it might be potentially more practical and a little bit safer — but what does spinning really do for you? There are many benefits to riding a stationary bike.
Research from 2018 found that combining it with strength training reduced cholesterol levels, enhanced endurance, and strength for young women — without any significant adjustments to diet. Though more research is needed.
A study from 2010 found that after 12 weeks of cycling, cholesterol levels did indeed drop, signaling the potential of indoor cycling to help people with weight loss.
Spinning vs. cycling
It’s hardly surprising that getting any form of intense cardio is good for you.
But is staying indoors better for you than hitting your nearest cycle path with aplomb?
Some plucky researchers studied 24 female middle-school students in Seoul, South Korea, who engaged in a 16-week course of cycling. This meant that 12 people cycled indoors and 12 outdoors.
While the researchers acknowledged that there was no difference between spinning and cycling when it came to weight loss, this did find that spinning had greater effects on physical fitness, body fat percentage, and body mass index (BMI).
Also, in COVID times, outdoor cycling is going to keep you far better insulated from the risk of transmission than entering a sweaty indoors space with others. So even if spinning is your usual jam, it might be time to embrace some more outdoorsy adventures with smaller groups of friends.
Another review of 28 trials on “green” (read: outdoor) exercise found that those who exercised felt like they’d exerted less and enjoyed the experience more, although the study authors did maintain that the evidence was low quality.
However, cycling indoors is a great option when trying to avoid bad weather or bad air quality outside.
There are also, naturally, different makes of stationary bike. We compared two major players here.
Burn, baby, burn: Indoor and outdoor biking calories
Some people might measure the success of a workout going by how many calories they can make evaporate into thin air.
How many calories does biking burn? And does it make a difference whether you’re inside a building or outside in the fresh air?
According to Harvard Medical School, stationary biking is one of the best calorie-burners out there, but the main factors that dictate calories burned aren’t being indoors or outdoors, but a person’s body weight and the intensity of the cycle:
For a 125-pound individual, stationary biking burns 210 to 315 calories in 30 minutes depending on the intensity of the exercise, and outdoor cycling ranges from 240 to 495 calories burned in 30 minutes based on speed.For a 155-pound individual, stationary biking burns 260 to 391 calories in 30 minutes depending on the intensity of the exercise, and outdoor cycling ranges from 298 to 614 calories burned in 30 minutes based on speed.For a 185-pound individual, stationary biking burns 311 to 466 calories in 30 minutes depending on the intensity of the exercise, and outdoor cycling ranges from 355 to 733 calories burned in 30 minutes based on speed.
Torque of the town: Why spinning and cycling rock
Despite their subtle differences, you’ll burn ample calories whether tearing up a spin class or tearing it down a country lane in an outdoor sprint.
Both are killer workouts
If you’re looking for a quick and dirty workout, there are few that hit the same caloric burn rate as a sweaty cycling class.
Classes have boomed in popularity for this exact reason — it’s nearly impossible to finish one without being soaked in sweat. Not what you want for, say, a poop. Exactly what you want for exercise. “It’s a very intense workout,” Southworth says.
Unlike a class, where an instructor is egging you on and telling you when to go hard and how much resistance to add, riding outside means you pick your own pace, and the road determines your resistance.
You can’t just dial the knob back when you’re grinding up a hill in your lowest gear.
Plus, your whole body will be working, from your core to maintain balance, from your glutes when you climb, to your upper body when you’re out of the saddle.
Both are ultra-efficient
An indoor cycling class is usually a 45- to 60-minute long “sufferfest” guaranteed to burn calories, and it ticks the “workout” box off your to-do list for the day.
There’s usually a place to shower afterward, and it’s weather-independent, so even a blizzard won’t keep you off the bike.
But outdoor cycling can be just as efficient in a different way: You can swap your drive to work or to the store for cycling and burn calories while commuting or running errands.
If you’ve got an insane schedule (who doesn’t?), it may be more realistic and convenient to get in your daily exercise through human-powered transportation rather than trying to jam gym time into your calendar.
Plus, science has shown that commuting to work by bike can increase happiness and productivity (so you’ll be more efficient all day long, not just while training).
And it’s more convenient than ever with bike-share programs popping up all over the U.S.
Both train your brain and body
Can’t quite get into meditating? Try a moving meditation instead. “You can really clear your head in a class,” Southworth says. “You’re working your ass off, but you can zone out and decompress.”
Many studios (inspired by the OG SoulCycle) now focus on inspirational music and mood-setting candlelight to help riders get in the zone.
You’ll challenge your brain by reacting to the instructor’s cues for different positions, rotations per minute (RPM or speed), and resistance.
Although indoor cycling is a great way to zone out, you’re not getting any fresh air in nature or challenging your brain with new stimulation.
“The motivation, the tunes, the community: It’s all great. But your brain and vision aren’t stimulated the way they are outside where you have to engage in a variable environment,” Glassford says. “That variety is good for your brain and body.”
Both communities are strong as hell
An indoor cycling class is a great activity for your crew, since you can have all different ability levels pedaling together, and no one gets dropped.
Even if you didn’t know the person on the bike next to you, you feel bonded together by the effort of the tribe. And if you regularly hit the same class, you might end up developing friendships at the smoothie bar after the sweating stops.
Outside, it’s no different. Cycling is as much of a group sport as it is an individual sport, which is why you often see bike gangs riding together in a pack (or a Peloton in a pro race).
When tackling long distances, you can ride farther and longer with more people by drafting (aka breaking the wind resistance) off one another to preserve energy.
There are few quicker ways to bond with some new friends than by tackling a long ride, hard climb, or epic adventure together — and then raising a toast with some beers afterward.
Not sure where to start? There are tons of cycling clubs always looking for more people to join in on the fun. If you’re new to riding outside and nervous about riding alone, just head to your local bike shop and ask about beginner groups. Most likely, you’ll find one in your area and make some new friends in the process.
The bottom line
At the end of the day, both indoor and outdoor cycling are equally awesome and offer a lot of similar benefits. But are they the same in terms of circumstance, workout, and payoff? In a nutshell, no.
To put it plainly, riding 20 miles on a stationary bike is not the same as riding 20 miles on the road.
Regardless, figure out which one works best for you and your lifestyle. The answer may well be both. Indoor cycling is often a gateway drug to outdoor cycling, so although it may seem daunting at first, keep an open mind to moving your legs outside.
No matter which you choose, crushing a cycling workout of any kind is sure to make you feel like a total badass on a bike and yield a bunch of benefits.