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A little over a month ago, my brother texted me that he and his girlfriend were going to his first-ever Spin class. Imagining my brother on a stationary bike among a group of (mostly) women pedal-pushing to house music was nothing short of hysterical. He’s the antithesis of a Spin class-goer—a semi-active 30-year-old who can eat a family-size Jack in the Box meal with zero shame.
Afterward, he sent me a follow-up message.
“The low point was when the instructor asked ‘Who’s getting brunch after this?’ and everyone cheered. The lower point was when one of the workers offered to take my cycling shoes to the box at the end because I was having trouble standing up.”
I figured he’d be a little sore after the class. I’ve only been to one Spin class in my entire life and remember my backside hurting the day after from the seat being wedged up in there for the better part of an hour. I tried to go a second time once post-brunch but got a little too friendly with the bottomless mimosas and was in no condition to Spin, let alone hop on a subway. No wonder my brother’s instructor asked who was getting brunch after the class. Rookie mistake.
What I didn’t expect, however, was just how sore he’d actually end up. As in, admitted-to-the-ER sore.
When I found out he’d been in the hospital for a few days because he couldn’t walk, I was in shock. Although admittedly, at first, I had to laugh. Were the doctors having a field day? Young Man Sent to ER After Girlfriend Brings Him to SoulCycle—it’s an Onion article waiting to happen. But then I heard the specifics of his condition—rhabdomyolysis—and they were no laughing matter.
Given the circumstances, I wondered about the likelihood of, well, anyone else coming down with this condition. So to get some answers, I spoke with two physicians. Keep reading to learn more about the exercise-induced condition that can be the result of any killer workout.
Meet the Expert
- Clifford Stark, DO, is a dual board-certified sports and family medicine doctor in New York City. He serves as the program director for the Northwell Plainview Sports Medicine Fellowship and is a member of the teaching faculty at NYU Langone Medical Center.
- Gerardo Miranda-Comas, MD, is a New York City–based board-certified rehabilitation and physical medicine doctor and assistant professor of sports medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Rhabdomyolysis can occur after particularly strenuous exercise, though it can also be caused by crush injuries, electrical injuries, seizures, and other muscle-damaging incidents.
What Is Rhabdomyolysis?
Rhabdomyolysis is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when skeletal muscle tissue breaks down rapidly, releasing enzymes and a protein called myoglobin into the bloodstream, causing pain, swelling, dark urine, elevated enzyme levels, and sometimes irreversible kidney damage.
What Are the Symptoms?
Dr. Miranda-Comas says that the top symptoms include muscle pain, limited movement, dark urine, general malaise, and feeling sluggish, tired, fatigued, or irritable. While these symptoms can be a momentary result of any workout, if they last for days on end, it could be more than just general exercise fatigue.
Other clinical signs include elevated CPK levels (creatine phosphokinase, an enzyme found in the heart, brain, and skeletal muscle) and kidney damage.
If you find yourself immobile following a Spin class (or any form of exercise), head to a doctor immediately. “One should seek urgent medical attention," Dr. Stark says. "Aggressive hydration is crucial with aggressive monitoring of fluid and electrolyte status, regularly assessing kidney function.”
Can Spin Class Cause Rhabdomyolysis?
It is possible to develop rhabdomyolysis after Spin class, particularly if it’s so strenuous that you overexert yourself to the point of damaging large muscles in your body such as your quads. But Spin class isn't the only potential culprit—boot camps and other HIIT workouts also pose a threat: “Many other forms of physical activity can cause rhabdomyolysis, especially if they involve intense, sustained exercise of larger muscle groups," says Dr. Stark. "Spinning involves a sustained, strenuous activity that involves large muscle groups, which can, therefore, release large quantities of toxins into the bloodstream. Also, Spinning is an activity that often attracts untrained individuals wanting to get in shape quickly.”
Who Can Develop Rhabdomyolysis?
While many people think that rhabdomyolysis occurs only in people who are out of shape, that's not always the case: “Anyone can develop rhabdomyolysis from a Spin class, though an untrained individual who progresses too rapidly in his or her workout is at greater risk," Dr. Stark says. "The larger the muscle being exercised, the greater the possibility of developing rhabdomyolysis." In other words, you’re more likely to develop rhabdomyolysis after a strenuous exercise that uses your legs, like Spinning or running, over activities that rely on the smaller muscles in your upper body, like triceps dips.
How to Treat Rhabdomyolysis
According to Dr. Miranda-Comas, it all comes down to rest, hydration (usually via IV infusion), and treatment of any of the possible complications: electrolyte disturbances, renal failure, cardiac arrhythmia. Depending on the stage of your rhabdomyolysis, your doctor will be able to advise you on which method to pursue. Thankfully, in most cases, renal function will return to normal.
How to Prevent Rhabdomyolysis
So how do you prevent this from happening in the first place? According to Dr. Stark, slow and steady wins the race.
“Make sure to progress slowly and gradually with exercise programs and avoid rapid increases in intensity and/or duration," he explains. "It’s also best to avoid extreme temperatures, especially in association with rigorous and prolonged exercise. Staying well hydrated is also very important—this is best accomplished by hydrating well in advance of the activity, rather than playing catch-up."
You’ll also need to be conscious of certain medications, which can be a catalyst for the condition: “Many prescription drugs may increase the risk of rhabdomyolysis, including a number of antipsychotics, lithium, SSRIs, HIV medications (like AZT), colchicine, antihistamines, decongestants (like pseudoephedrine), and several others," Dr. Stark points out. "It’s important to mention that many dietary supplements, such as those used for weight loss or as ergogenic aids, which often contain multiple ingredients, have been implicated in rhabdomyolysis, including ephedra, creatine, and large doses of caffeine. Alcohol can also increase the risk.” (Uh, good thing I didn’t try to Spin after those mimosas.)
Finally, Dr. Stark shares that you can also work to improve mobility by eating frequent meals and a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, as well as through medium-chain triglyceride supplementation. (At Byrdie, we love this MCT oil, $27.)
The Final Takeaway
This incident was enough to scare me away from any form of Spin class in the near future, but if you’re thinking of signing up for your first class or doing any other sort of workout, consider speaking with a doctor first and, as Dr. Stark said, easing your way into it. As for me, for now, I’ll just take brunch—hold the strenuous exercise.
Torres, P. A., Helmstetter, J. A., Kaye, A. M., & Kaye, A. D. (2015). Rhabdomyolysis: Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, and Treatment. The Ochsner Journal, 15(1), 58–69.