F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
By MSNBC contributor
msnbc.com
updated 4/13/2004 3:14:34 PM ET 2004-04-13T19:14:34

The universe is in unrest. Mercury, the planet of speed, is in retrograde. Mars (physical energy) and Jupiter (growth) are a little too close for comfort in the sky. To make matters worse, we're just coming off of a full moon.

But that's not stopping Darryl Gaines, instructor of Astro Rev, a fitness class recently introduced here at the Sports Club/LA, just a block over from famed Rodeo Drive. He takes all that confusion in the cosmos and channels it into a workout that combines astrology with indoor group cycling.

"What we're doing is taking all that fast, restless energy that is outside and we're getting rid of it -- right here!" he shouts during class last Wednesday evening.

What that means for the couple dozen men and women taking the class in a darkened studio is a heart-pumping, thigh-burning 50 minutes on the stationary bike with lots of sprints and a faster-than-usual overall pace.

"It really is all about speed tonight," says Gaines. "No bump in the road will stop us!"

The club's fitness schedule says Astro Rev is "intended to align your movement with the movements of the solar system" and offers "the workout the universe intended you to have!"

The idea of a workout that's in sync with the solar system may seem especially hokey, even for the Los Angeles fitness scene, but Gaines, who has studied astrology for years and once worked as a bike messenger in New York City, says it makes a lot of sense. Planets cycle, life cycles and, well, people cycle at the gym. "We all go through cycles," he says.

And creative combinations aren't unusual with indoor group cycling, often called spinning. Some instructors offer karaoke cycling, where participants pass around a mike as they bike, or arrange for live DJs in their classes. There’s nightclub spin, with disco music. Some classes play music videos on big screens. And increasingly, cycling is paired in “fusion” classes with completely different types of activity like yoga.

Still spinning
These classes are just some of the latest offerings in group cycling, which has had a long run in health clubs since it debuted nearly two decades ago.

“It’s now among the staple items on the menu of group exercise classes in clubs,” says Bill Howland, a spokesperson for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), which represents 4,500 health clubs in the United States.

Three-quarters of IHRSA clubs offer group cycling, Howland says, and a nationwide consumer survey found that 1.9 million people participated in group cycling classes in 2002, compared with 1.1 million in 1998.

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Whether that increase is still continuing is not clear. Meg Jordan, editor of American Fitness magazine, which is published by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, says cycling classes seem to have peaked in popularity about a year or so ago and are now being "eclipsed by yoga and Pilates."

But other industry insiders like Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, say that even if group cycling has reached a popularity plateau, it's not declining.

Jay Blahnik, an aerobics and cycling instructor in Laguna Beach, Calif., says instructors are continually trying to find new ways to keep group cycling interesting -- so participants don't feel like they're “in a dark room on a bike going nowhere.”

That's where the popular novelty classes like Astro Rev come in. “There’s always a new one popping up,” says Blahnik, who also works as an industry consultant and a spokesperson for IDEA, a trade group for fitness professionals.

Real rides
But there's another, very different group of cycling classes that are increasingly popular, according to Blahnik. These are the "real ride" classes that are intended to simulate an authentic road race, such as a segment of the Tour de France, or to train people to participate in road races.

Over the last few years Blahnik says he's been seeing more gym members, particularly athletic women, come to cycling class to gain an edge on their outdoor competitive cycling. Having already achieved the fit body they desire, these women and men are drawn to the challenge of competition. They may compete in bike races or even triathlons, and use the gym for their training.

Cycling indoors is beneficial because the difficulty of the terrain is under the biker's control, Blahnik explains. “It’s hard to make it hard without the terrain," he says. "Indoors you can instantly make it hard.”

Bryant says these classes are an example of how clubs are increasingly trying to extend their services beyond four walls with classes that appeal to people who are also active outside the gym. Some cycling instructors even lead their classes on road races, he says.

'An incredible workout'
Whatever the motivation, cycling classes have their share of devoted fans.

Among them are Larry and Jill Spiegel, who met in a cycling class eight years ago and got married a year later.

They've been taking Astro Rev since it began at the Sports Club/LA last fall. Jill, 46, says she likes the class for its high energy level. "I feel like I'm in a revival," she says. And she enjoys hearing the astrological readings, which she thinks hold true "sometimes."

Larry, 56, says Gaines is one of the best cycling instructors he's ever had.

"It's an incredible workout," Larry says. "He's very inspirational."

But the inspiration comes from the coaching rather than the cosmic element of the class.

"I don't believe in any of that," he says.

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