By Robin Keats
IN THE DARKENED SPACE OF AN EQUINOX GYM IN WESTWOOD, 14 masked exercise devotees frenetically pedal stationary bikes as a trainer astride a cycle on a raised platform exhorts them to ride faster and sweat harder. “Keep your shoulders down and enjoy the party!” he calls out as he rises up in his seat and pumps the pedals of his own cycle ever more furiously. “If you had a crappy week, leave it right here! Take it out right here, and then let it all go!”
The amped-up, percusive music is booming as Raphael J. Landovitz, MD, leads the group through one of his 45-minute classes. All eyes are on him, and as he whoops and shouts commands, his voice barely penetrating the pulsing beat of the mash-up soundtrack, he is trainer, choreographer, conductor and cheerleader all rolled into one. It’s an endorphinefueled sweat fest, and a welcome release for Dr. Landovitz from his UCLA day job as an infectious- diseases specialist and HIV/AIDS clinician. Several times a week, he teaches classes, encouraging his students — and himself — to reach deeper and push harder to achieve that euphoric runner’s high that is the Holy Grail of high-intensity athletes.
“How lucky are we that we get to move our bodies and sweat in this way?” he calls out to the class. “Let’s take a moment of gratitude that we are healthy enough to be here together!”
Dr. Landovitz took up indoor cycling after he finished his fellowship training at Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital and he realized he was overweight and concerned about his health; his father had died of a heart attack at the age of 57. “I knew I had to do something about my own health, so I signed up at a gym and took a cycling class,” he recalls. “I nearly fell off my bike from exhaustion. But it was so much fun that I wanted to get good at it.”
A self-described overacheiver — a trait that drove him to set off for Southeast Asia to take the position of medical co-director for the Vietnam CDC Harvard Medical School AIDS Partnership in Ho Chi Minh City before coming to UCLA in 2006, as well as to earn a number of prestigious recognitions — he couldn’t take just one or two classes a week. “I had to go five or six times, then every day, then multiple times a day,” he recalls, with a laugh. Friends suggested that he start teaching classes, and so, like an actor looking for his big break, he made an audition tape and landed a slot at a Boston gym. He used the same tactic in Vietnam, where he taught indoor cycling to a class of international ex-pats.
“I’ve always had a little bit of a theatrical gene, and I think if I had any talent I would have gone into musical theater as a profession,” he says. “You don’t want to hear me sing, and you definitly don’t want to see me dance, but these classes serve as an amalgamation of my love of teaching and an opportunity to perform a little bit. That combination of characteristics and opportunities is kind of seductive to me.”
Dr. Landovitz finds there are parallels between teaching indoor cycling and teaching students in an academic hospital. “In both cases, I have to be able to teach at multiple levels,” he says. In the hospital, he may be working with students who are at very different points in their training — medical students, residents or fellows. In his cycling classes, some participants “may be professional cyclists while others have never exerted themselves to such extreme degrees before.” In either environment, “You have to be something of a chameleon.” His drive to cycle didn’t abate during the COVID-19 pandemic. When gyms shut down, Dr. Landovitz tapped into Zoom classes for his regular work-outs. For the first time in 17 years, he had no exercise class to teach. But that enabled him to devote more time to the frontline fight against COVID, while the at-home Zoom workouts helped to alleviate the accumulated stress of difficult 14-hour days.
Now that vaccines have helped to somewhat ameliorate the pandemic, gyms have reopened and he is back to teaching regular cycling classes, huffing and puffing through a KN-95 mask. “For the majority of my medical career, indoor cycling has been very therapeutic because it’s been that theatrical outlet that takes me away from the weight of academic medicine,” he says. “It allows me to be theatrical and crazy and out of the box. It’s been invaluable.”
Robin Keats is a regular contributor to U Magazine.