Fad Fitness: Flywheel Forever?

Wrap-Up: Adding up the long-term cost of a confidence boost

Was it all worth it?

After six weeks of climbing imaginary hills on a stationary bike, pumping my weighted fists to Yeezy’s beats, and racing middle-aged men in the Nobody Cares But Me Cup, I can offer a conditional yes.

First the yes.

When I began indoor cycling with Flywheel, I approached it with the bemusement of an outsider. My wife, who had tried a SoulCycle class and knows my curmudgeonly ways, warned me, “You’re going to hate it! It’s a sensory assault of flashing lights and loud music, like you’re working out in a club.”

Thankfully the lights thing only applied to SoulCycle, but she was right about the music. She was wrong, however, on the major point: I actually, strangely, enjoyed it.

That I left each class with a sense of accomplishment testifies to Flywheel’s method of focused immersion. You’re doing minor variations on a single thing, cycling, for 45 minutes; and you’re enabled by the surround sound, the darkened room, the twin LCD beacons of your bike’s meter and scoreboard, to abandon your inner Bruno Mars-hating critic and just ride.

Therein lies the appeal. Flywheel and its cousin SoulCycle seem calculated to remove many of the barriers to gym-going that inhibit your average white-collar urbanite.

Need the structure of classes? That’s all Flywheel does. Need motivation to push yourself deeper into the calorie-burning zone? Flywheel offers a number of tricks, from trackable metrics, to races, to theatrical instructors, to keep you from slacking. Need an uncomplicated workout that’s both beginner and gym-rat friendly? Nearly anyone can ride a stationary bike with minimal instruction.

But now I’m starting to feel uncomfortably like a booster—I’m a reporter, dammit!—so here’s the rub:

Flywheel is expensive. Not so expensive that it’s not worth the $30 per class, if you can afford it, but expensive enough that most people can’t afford the recommended two or three classes a week. That’s up to $90 weekly, compared to $92 monthly (plus $165 joining fee) for a month-to-month membership at a nearby Crunch Gym, an upscale chain with its own spin classes. (and SoulCycle’s classes are similarly priced to Flywheel’s).

What Flywheel does have is many more classes than a typical gym, a complement of full-time instructors, and the aforementioned cachet of being something cooler than a gym. You get what you pay for, but what you pay is a lot.

But, “Results!” you clamor. “What are the results?”

From my initial 161 pounds, I hit a low of 153 pounds before leaving for vacation on Christmas Eve, just over five weeks into my regimen. I’m back up to 155 pounds now, but that’s after nine days in which I did two lower-calorie SoulCycle workouts, some light hiking, and a lot of eating in restaurants. For the person who wishes to lose some weight and needs to outsource some portion of their discipline to a trainer, Flywheel is fantastically effective.

My endurance, as measured by the “total power” score, has also markedly improved. That score hovered around 220 to 230 (translating to about 660 to 690 calories) for the first few classes, which already struck me as a high baseline.

Without peer pressure from the pack of riders around me, I might have been satisfied with that healthy burn. But riders—man and woman, lithe and lumpy—were topping 300 left and right, and I wasn’t going to be the guy satisfied with a merely good workout.

With the help of a calculator, I found my target numbers and built my legs, abs and glutes towards the goal of a 900-calorie workout. If only a calculator could have done some of the pedaling! Target burns meant target resistance, and target resistance meant steep hills. By the end, I felt like I was riding in San Francisco on a fixed gear bike, denied even the catharsis of coasting down a picturesque half-mile decline while my legs took a stretch.

It took me just over four weeks and the help of a worthy opponent to reach my lucky 300. After that solid 306, my next two workouts were 298 and 311, suggesting a new baseline. I have no doubt my improvement in this department would eventually level out without some outside endurance training—those guys hitting scores of 400 or more punch in at the gym like it’s their job, if their biceps are to be believed.

How this translates to road endurance I have yet to determine—Flywheel does nothing for my cold tolerance. No asphalt, however tightly packed, can equal the smooth ride of a stationary bike (although I’d be intrigued to give one of these guys a go), and, conversely, no stationary bike can simulate the thousand tiny bumps and adjustments of a real ride.

What a stationary bicycle can do—and has done—is keep my quads and calves in tight formation, firm up my glutes, and strengthen my core. These aren’t the spectacular feats of body sculpting my colleagues strive for in other fad workouts, but they get the job done.

Now the 40-mile Five Borough Bike Tour, which I skipped last year, sounds positively easy, and a century is no longer out of the question.

Maybe $30 a class is a high price to pay for a boost in confidence, or maybe not, if it’s in your budget. My advice is to keep an eye out for online deals on sites like Groupon and Bloomspot, since Flywheel has been known to sell discounted packages.

Regardless of price, regular doses of Flywheel will do what it promises on the bottle.


About the Project: The Active Times' Fad Fitness Challenge is a six-week-long project in which five hapless writers will immerse themselves in five popular fitness programs—CrossFit, Insanity, Barre, Flywheel and Kettlebell classes—for the dual purposes of getting in shape and evaluating them for our readers. We guinea pigs will bust our butts, burn calories and discover muscles we'd long since mothballed and, if all goes well, emerge into the New Year with a well-rounded perspective of the top fitness fads. Check back every weekday from now until the New Year to come along for the ride without breaking a sweat. Click here to check out the rest of the programs.