The Counterintuitive Mechanics of Peloton Addiction

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This post is part of an ongoing series on the overarching cultural significance of Peloton. The first two pieces in the series can be found here and here.

There’s this thing that Christine D’Ercole likes to say to riders at moments when they might be tempted to obsess over their placement on the Peloton leaderboard, which shows users their current overall performance in comparison to others at the exact moment in the ride.

“Take that leaderboard,” she says, “and flip it on its side. Now imagine you’re all out there, riding alongside one another.”

Christine has a lot of strategies to get people to stop looking at the numbers or compete: she encourages riders to find a pace, get comfortable, then close their eyes; she refers to the high fives you can give other riders as “hands on each other’s backs.” And she’s not unique: other instructors invite users to hide the leaderboard, to put a towel over the metrics, to “double tap to hide metrics and let’s have some fun.” Alex clowns on anyone trying to juice their stats during warm up, cool down, or rest periods. It’s cool, instructors say, to compete during competition times. It’s cool to use others’ presence as a way of experiencing some sort of community and motivation. But it’s not cool, in Peloton world, to be a leaderboard rat.

All of this might seem counter-intuitive: other than the ability to exercise at home, the primary selling point of the Peloton is ostensibly the ability to compete with others. And I do think that’s the initial hook: the thrill of zooming past even one other person, even if that person is just a bike in the showroom in Dallas that’s just set to continually do the ride on repeat. But the sustained addiction is much more complicated — and goes far beyond — the allure of the leaderboard.

The exploration that follows is an outgrowth of my relationship with the bike, which, as you’ll see, is predicated on a particularly noxious relationship with exercise in general. You might have a very different relationship with exercise and, by extension, your Peloton — and I hope you’ll share it. But I think this particular type of relationship, much like disordered eating and body image, is more common than most understand.

1) Design and Gamification

The first time I used a Peloton, I was in a hotel. This was pre-Covid, and also pre-quasi-normalization of Peloton ownership. I had seen commercials and coveted one but thought it was ridiculous. When I saw one in the hotel gym, I made a beeline for it. I got a first-ride shout-out from Ally (remember, this was the early days) which was cool in a bizarre sort of way, but what convinced me I wanted a bike was the design. At that point, I’d probably attended ~100 spin classes over the course of my life — never SoulCycle, just part of various gym memberships. They were fine, but the bikes were janky and you just never knew what you were going to get with a particular teacher and their music.

I liked the control component of the Peloton — starting when I wanted, with an instructor whose style I liked, playing music I (mostly) liked — but the thing that’s hard to describe to people who’ve never used one is the attractiveness of the design. It’s the size of the screen, which creates a far more immersive experience than, say, streaming a class on an iPad, but it’s more than that. It’s the font, and the intuitive placement of (most) of the functions. It’s the sensitive and responsive metrics, which become even more expansive if you wear the heart rate monitor.

You might think it’s weird that a font would make people want to use a bike, but good design makes people think about a product, well, differently: “Users tend to perceive an aesthetically pleasing design as more usable than its less attractive competitors,” UX designer Samantha Rapa explains. “A positive response is triggered in people’s brains, causing them to think the design actually works better than it does. The Peloton app is no different.”

In other words: in addition to whatever physical experience you have on the bike, the aesthetic experience of it makes you want to do it again.

That aesthetic experience is amplified by the gamified elements of the Peloton, which include streaks, challenges, and badges, all of which accumulate like flair. Some people are extremely dedicated to acquiring badges (of which there are literally hundreds) and some are very invested in their streaks — which, like investment in any game, has its pros and cons (which I’ll touch on more below). But if you’re trying to get people in the habit of using a service, one surefire strategy is to reward their small and extended victories and/or exploit their completionist tendencies.

The bike is pretty and the bike is responsive and the bike has some of the same qualities as Candy Crush and/or Apple Watch “rings.” But none of those things adequately accounts for the sort of loyalty that people have developed with this brand. It’s the aesthetics, but it’s also the…

2) Refined Low-Stakes Competition

I am not a sports competitive person. This has a lot to do with childhood PE trauma and the lack of left-handed baseball mitts and just being an indoor kid. As an adult, I have glommed to solo activities; within those activities, I shy from anything, even “fun” runs, that position the experience as a race in any form. (Collaborative races like the Ragnar where the one goal is finishing? Great.) Otherwise, the perfectionist part of me takes over and transforms the experience. This even happens to me when I’m running in public places that attract a lot of others runners: there is nothing, nothing, I hate quite like I hate coming up on someone who’s doing approximately the same pace and feeling the burden that you should keep or accelerate your own pace, lest you face the small humiliation of getting smoked by a total stranger you’ll never see again.

This is psychologically fucked up, I realize, but it is my reality. In my early days of Peloton, I loved doing live rides — where you compete in real-time — or, in on-demand rides, keeping the “full” leaderboard up. I found it thrilling to watch my placement on the board (determined by “output,” which is itself determined by the resistance and cadence on the bike) go up by, oh, 1000 in a single minute. My favorite rides were Alex’s Club Bangers and Robin’s HIIT & Hills.

That lasted about, oh, three weeks? Four? This is the pivot point, I think, particularly for people with disordered relationships to exercise. Either you keep using the Peloton as a means to maintain and even accelerate that relationship — and eventually flame out — or you realize, like I did, that people were ‘cheating,’ either through 1) bots (I still don’t quite understand how this works, but it is definitely happening) or 2) just cranking up their resistance and grinding through the warm-up, the ride itself, and the recoveries, attempting to blow everyone else away. Plus, why was I trying to compete with 20 year old men with hashtags like #TRIATHLETE4LIFE???

I started filtering the Leaderboard to “Here Now,” which winnowed my “competitors” from the tens of thousands down to hundreds. Then I filtered for women, and then, depending on my mood, for others in my age bracket. Or I just toggled it to show the people I follow — which usually meant just 5 or 6 people in a given class. Many of those people are people I know in real life, and over the course of the last year, I’ve tried several of their bikes. Those experiences underlined what I already knew: every bike is calibrated differently. Hotel bikes are often calibrated “loosely” so that you perform well, feel great about yourself, and then consider buying the bike. Within this framework, trying to pass everyone was just an invitation to injure myself — or just miss the entire point of the class.

Again, I think this realization is fairly common amongst steady users — and usually coincides with or is prompted by a shift to PZ (Power Zone) training. Unlike “normal” classes, in which the instructor suggests a resistance and cadence and you, as a rider, try to match it, PZ instructors tell you a zone (from 1 to 7), sometimes suggest a cadence, and then you try to land your overall output in that zone. But here’s the key: everyone’s zones are different. They’re determined by taking the 20-minute FTP test, and then pressing a button to “create” a zone meter on your bike.

You can read more about how PZ works, and every PZ instructor attempts to explain it at the beginning of each class. I’ve found it to be revelatory in terms of rethinking the competitive aspect of the bike, because everyone in a PZ class is working just as hard as everyone else. Their Zone 3 range might be different than my Zone 3 range, but it feels the same amount of hard for them in their body as it does in my body.

When I pass someone now — or, just as often, when they pass me — I give them a high-five. It’s fun to have other people riding with you. It’s fun to conceive of yourself in quasi-competition. But it’s even better to realize it doesn’t actually mean anything. Which leads to the actual value of those sensitive metrics…..

3) Self-Comparison

The revelation of power zones — or just the revelation that the leaderboard is effectively meaningless — is that you’re not actually competing with anyone other than yourself. Power Zone instructors often make this explicit: “the leaderboard is for high fives,” they’ll say, or they’ll acknowledge and discourage the tendency to “blow your zones” because you’re so used to powering through whenever you have the opportunity. There are classes (Power Zone Max) that attempt to harness that inclination, but what I’ve found most addictive about PZ is pretty boring. It actually makes you stronger, and you can measure that change in small but meaningful ways by “retesting” your FTP every few months.

You can experience that change on your own, or by following the two guided Peloton PZ programs (beginning and intermediate). Alternately, you can participate in the ever-expanding PZ Challenges, facilitated by the Power Zone Pack, which generally last six to eight weeks. These challenges started out as an offshoot of the Power Zone Pack Facebook page, but have now expanded to include hundreds of thousands of participants and a very complex system of weekly rides. You join the challenge as part of team, and the team goal is to have everyone complete the 3-4 rides that week, which are programmed in a way to build strength over the course of the challenge. There are team names, challenge themes (usually very broad and banal, like “Spring” or “Stone Age”) and hashtags. You’re not competing within the team, and the teams are only playfully competing with each other on percentage of rides completed. (My team, for example, is somehow filled with type-A lawyer moms and gives zero shits about “winning”).

As Christine often says, it’s not about where you are on the leaderboard, it’s that you’re on the leaderboard in the first place. When you compete in enough challenges, you will often repeat a ride that you did six months ago — and see meaningful change in your output if you compare at the end. (I personally always turn off the PR comparison and only look at the comparison to a previous ride at the end). Sometimes you don’t improve — but you’ve also been given the tools, particularly if you’ve done a bunch of challenges, to understand, as Wilpers repeatedly says, that anyone without a dynamic FTP is a legit robot.

My relative increases (often just 2 to 5!) in class output don’t mean I’m a better person. Sometimes, I just don’t have it. But I’ve come to understand those numbers, all of them, as evidence that I’ve worked at something for 18 months and it has borne fruits of strength and endurance.

Working out in that way, disarticulating from weight loss goals? It feels great. When I can stay in my Zone 4 for ten very long minutes and live to tell the tale? I don’t remember the struggle. I remember that I did it.

Importantly, this is not a radical or oppositional posture within the larger Peloton universe. Unlike other forms of standardized exercise in my past, Peloton has chosen to quietly embrace the rhetoric of movement over weight loss. You might not notice it until you look for it, but there is no talk of tightening, or “getting your body back,” or the joy of calories burned. The company is absolutely on a HAES (Health At Any Size) journey, even if it still has a ways to go. (The next natural step: hire some instructors that underline that idea; I would also love to know the specifics of the training they do with instructors, social media content managers, and comms, because they are helping change people’s minds about who fitness is for and how it works).

I realize all this is very dorky and sincere, but it is no more or less dorky and sincere than, say, sports. I also realize that it’s a huge part of what keeps me coming back to the bike. Others have figured out other ways to compete with themselves and get that addictive high of slight but meaningful improvement. For me, PZ itself channels that desire, and the PZ Challenges give it even more shape — while also putting up guardrails that protect me from my own ego. Which is why, for people with my relationship to exercise or something similar, the truly addictive property of the bike is actually its…

4) Deescalation & Sustainability

Over the last two decades, I’ve oscillated between obsessions with various forms of exercise. Spinning, Les Mils, hot yoga, pilates, step aerobics, distance running, trail running, kickboxing, various YMCA group lifting classes — I like routine and I like challenge. I’d push myself until I got injured, then rejigger and either try again or find a new obsession. When I first got into group cycling, which was free at the University of Texas gym, I had bad form on a bad bike and did it too much — and part of my right quad went numb for months. Later, I did hot yoga every day for two years, and I screwed up my SI joint. (The treatment for that particular injury, my physical therapist informed me, is usually… When I got a Garmin watch it just pushed me to keep decreasing my splits until I pulled my hamstring, aggravated it while pulled, and then couldn’t run for six months.

All of these stories are, again, the puzzle pieces of a big flashing sign for FUCKED UP RELATIONSHIP WITH EXERCISE. And that relationship is rooted in the fact that the first time I exercised — as in, did an activity “for exercise,” not because it was fun, or my friends were doing it — it was the mid-’90s, and I was in the basement of my 1990s house, stumbling through the routine of my mom’s Jane Fonda step aerobics video. In the beginning, I did these classes because I was bored and they appealed to the part of me that enjoyed simple dance routines. But by late high school, I had thoroughly adopted and internalized the vernacular of fatphobia. I didn’t exercise to compete, or to feel strong, or for the endorphins. I was exercising out of fear.

I was also exercising without a real understanding of the way the body — and exercise — works. Maybe this was because I was never part of team sports, but I also think it’s because diet culture-inflected exercise understands an activity’s worth vis-a-vis calories burned. Within that understanding, the more exercise you do — preferably at the highest intensity possible — the better. To rest is to not exercise; to not exercise is to make yourself vulnerable to the thing you’ve learned to fear the most, e.g., gain weight. I hated the idea of cross-training/ I’d usually take one day max off aerobic activity every week.

In addition to just being mentally unhealthy, this paradigm usually culminates in injury. But before that, overtraining leads to declining performance. The more you do, the worse you feel.

To be clear, I absolutely could’ve found myself in a similar place with Peloton. Ironically, my early absorption — intensified during the double whammy of the pandemic + Montana winter — actually led to a different relationship altogether. Because I was spending all of my time with Peloton instructors, I also found myself, well….actually listening to what they told me about rest? And realizing the benefit of warm-ups, and cool-downs, and recovery rides, and actually cross-training? And doing all of this with instructors who explicitly said that you cannot and should not attempt to dominate every ride, and underlined the difference between training and racing and the rides that aligned with each attitude, and explained the way the body works to me, their very captive audience with nothing else to do for 45 to 90 minutes, so many times that I couldn’t ignore it — it somehow got through.

I know this sounds straightforward, but I also know I am not the only person who could not hear the wisdom that others offered until: 1) It was given to me by instructors — I’ll even use their word, coaches — with whom I had developed a (parasocial) trusting relationship; 2) I felt myself getting stronger and feeling less like shit from overtraining; and 3) I stopped injuring myself.

Apart from minor knee pain remedied by raising my seat, I haven’t had a single injury in nearly two years of steady Peloton use. I ride four days a week, and one of those days is a recovery or low impact ride. I cross-train with Peloton strength classes, which have taught me good form and how to embrace quality over quantity. I am slowly dismantling the part of my brain that only conceives of hard, extended cardio exercise as exercise. Rest is part of exercise. I may have had that knowledge before, but it was not embodied.

I feel my body changing, but more importantly, I feel my mind changing. The calorie count is meaningful to me only as a distraction from a two minute interval in Zone 5. It has no bearing on the rest of my day, my life, or my understanding of a ride. Streaks happen and disappear without planning. I’ve let go of instructors with more of an inclination to call out impossible resistance ranges and gravitated towards those who understand the leaderboard the way I do — which also means a lot more PowerZone. It is not lost on me, of course, that this shift is happening alongside equally significant shifts in the way I think of work, and productivity, and rest.

If you think embracing rest and a healthier posture towards exercise is bad for Peloton, you’re wrong. This attitude means that I’ll not only want to, but be physically able to continue my relationship with their product. More importantly, it also bodes well for my own body and its continued resilience. It’s a lot easier to sustain an addiction to something, after all, when your addiction is actually teaching you, explicitly and implicitly, a very real praxis of moderation.

A few closing notes:

  • Please try to refrain from diet or weight loss talk in the comments. Any comments that fail to respect this guideline will be deleted.

  • If you’re interested in a Peloton community that embraces this posture towards the bike, I can’t recommend the Peloton HAES (Health At Any Size) FB group strongly enough

  • I recognize the limits of my own experience in relationship to my identity, and as part of this continuing Peloton series, would love to publish a piece by someone who is not, well, me or like me when it comes to the way I relate to the world. If you have a fleshed out pitch for a personal or reported essay, email me with PELOTON PITCH in the subject line. Paid subscribers make it possible for me to pay $500 per piece.

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