This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. 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
This is the first thing I've ever read that made me interested in trying Peloton! I always assumed it was weight loss focused like most other exercise communities, so I never bothered. I feel like I'm finally understanding what makes Peloton tick (good and bad) by reading your explorations of it.
My extended family got really into Peloton over the last year and it's so interesting how each of us has a slightly different relationship with it. We have the badge seekers, the leaderboard guys, the program completionists, the adamant leaderboard hiders (which weirdly include the two most competitive people), and my mom who was so proud of her century shirt for walking even though she has never looked at her stats in any way shape or form. I really love how this platform has gotten each of us to improve our fitness in a way that feels strangely personal, but in a way we can share it with each other.
Thanks for this post-- despite knowing many people with bikes, I've never read this thorough of an explanation of how it all works. I use the Peloton app for outdoor runs--something I found a few months ago in a NYT article titled something like "how to make running suck less." I was a quick convert, after 5 years of cycles of not running, deciding to train for something too ambitious, escalating mileage too quickly, hurting my back or knee, being sedentary again. Now I run for time and only build mileage a teeny little bit at a time when my pace increases. I'm 52 and this is the first sustainable routine I've found since I was an age where I could just decide to ramp it up at any time and train for a half marathon (maybe early 40s?).
I gotta say I've never enjoyed running more! All those years when I thought I had to constantly do longer runs? I'm looking back and realizing I was trying to keep up with the cool kids and the perception that you're not really a runner if you've never run a half or full marathon. 30 minute HIIT runs are fun, reminding me that I was a sprinter in high school, not a xc runner, and it's okay to do what my body loves doing. I love the coaches and their patter and am kind of weirdly glad I can't see them. I can hear them, though, and there's one that I don't go back to because I never heard her breathe heavily and thus I don't believe her when she says "I"m right here doing this with you!"
Sounds like the Power Zones are the equivalent of the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) in the outdoor audio runs? I find it a helpful guideline, even though without a testing mechanism for running, it's fairly subjective.
tl;dr-- even without any of the metrics or competition offered by bike and tread, i'm addicted to my peloton outdoor runs and I think you've explained why.
Grateful to be on the threshold of middle age in an era where HAES and "joyful movement" have some real purchase on the collective psyche (and that's just for me, never mind the implications for my baby daughter). I'm not a Peloton user but have rather recently discovered Crossfit which seems to tick many of the same boxes (community, variety, competition with self & others). To move for the fun of it and not for fear is a revelation!
I first got my Peloton about a year ago when I went from freelance writer back to corporate writer and also had my PT to do for a broken leg (the social distancing started in November 2019 for me). But what you write about rings so true! Since moving from Chicago to Montana (hello, fellow Big Sky Country resident!) a few years ago, and getting away from competitive running (who am I kidding, jogging) I was so obsessed and anxious about what would "be my new thing" that I totally freaked out, sat on the couch, and had a major depressive episode for the last 4 years. Peloton was something that I could do away from prying eyes, but also somehow connected (or not) with others. The first 100 rides were a bit obsessive, then I had to figure out what was next and that kind of gave me the same anxiety. But now, I'm seeing it as this tool where my joints feel better and my butt is slightly smaller and I get a little faster or at least feel faster every time I do it. Plus, Cody. I think I'll forever be in that back third of the leaderboard, no matter how big the class size gets. And I'm totally OK with that. A longer term Pelo friend just recently took a month off (cat death) and chose to reset her PRs back to zero. I was like, OH SHIT you can do that? She said it's been really freeing and she doesn't feel like she's competing with someone she was back in July. I may do the same.
Wow, this really resonated with me. Thank you for articulating it so well. I have a history of an eating disorder and a disordered relationship with exercise that replaced it for years. I won't describe my old habits to avoid triggering anyone, but I've been struck by how I don't do *any* of them with the Peloton. Some days I feel like going for a PR, and others I respond genuinely when Hannah says "sometimes we measure our success by how much fun we're having". I LOVE that Peloton uses HAES on social media and never posts "before and after" photos or similar crap. I would never have thought that an exercise program would be part of my ongoing recovery process and healing, but I can honestly say it has been. You broke this down in a very enlightening way!
I love this post, and thank you for writing about this in a way that doesn’t trigger my own disordered relationship with food and movement. This is really interesting stuff! I have been thinking about Peloton ever since a fat, HAES blogger I love (Authentically Emmie) got one and talked about her experience as a fat woman who also needs to avoid those kind of triggers and exercise intuitively. If anyone else is interested in her perspective as a very fat and non-weight-loss focused woman using a Peloton, here’s a link, she has a few other posts but this is the most recent and robust, I think: https://authenticallyemmie.com/2021/09/plus-size-peloton-1-year-review/
Hearing two voices I trust say that for the most part the experience of Peloton is set up in that way is really interesting. We don’t have the space for one in the very small house we just moved into, but it definitely makes me want to try one! There’s something nice about hearing that this expensive, status symbol is at least a tool that can be used in a healthier way — I am hopeful that society is going to continue to get a LITTLE better at helping people feel morally neutral about fitness and movement, and allow people to move their bodies or not in a way that works for them instead of as a punishment. It’s extremely wishful thinking at this point but I can’t imagine that even ten years ago that a product based around fitness wouldn’t be exclusively marketed as being for weight loss.
Loved this article. I've had a similar relationship to exercise as you described, and personally, the pandemic made me a Peloton devotee after years of being a runner who did SoulCycle and other boutique fitness to cross-train. I never thought I'd enjoy a workout done at home so much, and perhaps it's related to how I started (being forced to rethink my routine due to Covid), but I now can't imagine not taking Peloton classes and have no interest in heading back to the studios I frequented pre-trying out the app. Additionally, I work in corporate communications and have also taken note of the very specific way Peloton (the brand, including the instructors) uses language; I think it's really interesting -- the approach they've taken, which is without a doubt deliberate, in how they talk about their classes/workouts/goals; personally, I find it truly refreshing and is part of what I love about their classes and brand.
I have had my bike for almost 5 years. I didn’t start exercising u til I turned 40. Peloton changed my mind the same way it did yours. I have evolved as well from the personality driven classes to Power Zones, the challenges with the PZP pack, low impact rides, and yes, a rest day! I always hated weights and Peloton made me less afraid of them. I have now i corporates them into my routine. CDE, Wilpers, Ben, Dennis, Hannah F., and Jenn are my go to’s of late. CDE feels like the coolest person in the world to me and Wilpers is so smart and motivating. Loving this series and I am very intrigued by who your instructor is that you aren’t following or doing anymore as mentioned in one of your first pieces.
Even though I am fortunate enough that I could afford a Peloton, there's no room in my apartment for it.
I'm also a bit skeptical of the whole thing for my own weird, personal reasons. I get irrationally angry when I see people who are really into fitness because I spent so much of my life building an identity around the idea that fitness is not important. (I've always been the smart nerd.)
What makes no sense, then, is that I really enjoy cycling (at least in the real world). I got a lot more into it during the pandemic since I had nothing else to do. I accidentally became fit and it is a source of some cognitive dissonance...
Just want to thank you for this series. I use the Peloton app on an ipad because I bought a similarly expensive commercial spin bike in 2014 just as Peloton was launching their bike. I have been riding for a few years now, mostly when I am injured from running and once a week in normal times to give my knees a break. I can't use those competitive features, and I think that's probably best for me. I take every PZ class that is offered because that really is my jam even though I can't establish my zones via an FTP test. My achilles has been injured for months and I miss running a lot, but Peloton keeps me active and sane -- and as a somewhat obsessive exerciser who generally tries to fit in 75 minutes in the early morning, it's nice to have an option to just do a 30 minute class when time is short and know that my heart is pumping and I feel like I am going to age a little more gracefully. I am a huge fan of CDE and I know it's in part because she is my age, and her build is more relateable, and also because she plays a lot of music that I like. I made reservations at a hotel for my son's college graduation in May that includes a Peloton in the gym and I am quite curious about how the real bike experience will be.
I was a team sport person in high school, but I’ve always hated running without a ball being involved. When free gyms were basically placed in my path (at law school, in a couple of apartment buildings), I took advantage, but my exercise since having kids has consisted of dog walks and repeated Couch-to-5k experiences I did when the kids did Girls on the Run. Ankle arthritis put an end to any delusions that I might run on my own and I got a Peloton in June. I know from past experience with rowing machines that I am…um…hyper-competitive about going faster and/or longer distances, so I started hiding the leaderboard after about my fourth ride. In that vein, I just finished a 30-minute 80s ride (Peloton has not forgotten that Gen X exists!) with Christine, who sounded like she just read your newsletter; when she said, “Don’t fuck up your workout with your ego,” I felt like she was talking to me. I appreciate how much of the chat during workouts is about pushing yourself a little bit rather than going until you collapse. And the strength classes are about getting stronger (Christine often says it’s about being able to carry your grandchildren up the stairs) instead of looking good in a bikini or whatever. And I’m definitely stronger than I was in June!
Really interesting post and I appreciate that you go deep into the psychological dynamics of why Peloton works for you. Interestingly, you have played an important if indirect part in my own relationship to health and exercise. You wrote a piece for either The Hairpin or The Toast (sorry, can't remember) about Hot Yoga and how it helped you while you were getting your PhD and that started me down a path of looking for my own 'Hot Yoga' (that was not hot yoga, because I hate being hot). It took years but I did finally find a form of exercise that brings me joy, that I can have a healthy relationship with, and I can stick with - Zumba (and related dance fitness). I feel like a HUGE cliche, but I don't really care anymore about that. I just love it. I go (or went) to a physical studio. They moved online during the pandemic and that was super hard for me, the actual studio and the real (if professional) relationships I developed with different instructors and the joy of dancing with a group. But I've stuck with it online and back in person (during the all-too -brief hot-vax summer weeks of late June and early July) and back online again. So thank you for that. While I'm sorry that hot yoga turned out not to be right for you, I'm glad you found Peloton, and I appreciate that my parasocial relationship with you galvanized me to keep trying.
I have weighed in on this in a previous essay on Peloton here and do not mean to be redundant. I have taught fitness/group exercise since 1985 (yes I am old). This has included everything from high impact aerobics, step, les mills, barre, spin, body sculpting, boot camp, HIIT, Tabata, you name it. Currently I teach 5 days a week, in person, classes that varies from boot camp, 50/50, and Spin. I am also a social worker that has a masters in group work. The focus in all of my classes is fitness (balance, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular health) but the most important byproduct is community or belonging to a group. I do love ANY class that is safe and gets someone moving not matter where it is or what type of exercise it is and I have enjoyed taking Peloton classes on my friend's bike when I visit her. I do however feel like this is another place in life where we are substituting in person community with online community. I agree that this works in a pandemic, and there are a million reasons why working out in a group/community in person in a non pandemic world does not work for a lot of people. I get all of that. And maybe because Peloton is literally making my job obsolete- no it really is- that I feel this loss. But I do. I grieve the loss of the era of in-person group exercise classes. When I have been a student it is where I find a lot of my peeps- when I am a teacher it is where I get to watch as my classes become connected and motivated through each other, witness friendships develop and even romances blossom. I have watched as people have garnered support for the most challenging of losses and been celebrated for life's wonderful events, quietly or loudly, in person, eye-to-eye.
I bought my bike In January of this year, after months of solo running. I'm primarily a runner, but before moving to my current city took the occasional indoor cycling class to supplement my training. I was initially skeptical about the Peloton "experience" because what I loved about indoor cycling was the studio atmosphere, which I didn't think I would be able to replicate at home, even with great music and the Peloton leaderboard. But 10 months into the pandemic, I missed the social aspect of working out. And I missed the competition of live racing. I also just needed an alternative to constantly running; I'm fortunate to live in a place where I can run outside pretty much year round, but my body was craving variety.
At first, I was that person you describe in the essay. Being able to climb the leaderboard and see my output rise with each workout was motivating, and appealed to my overachieving nature. I think it's an almost universal experience, in those early days, for most riders to PR on each successive ride. The danger in that is that if you're working for a PR every day, your body isn't really getting the rest it needs.
The thing that healed my relationship with my stats was treating the Peloton the way I treat my running. I don't set a PR every time I step out my door for a run. I don't even PR at every race. My June marathon PR was months (years?) in the making and required a LOT of easy runs and recovery days. This is similar to the PZ philosophy, but it took me a while to transfer that training ethic from running to the bike.
Am I still competitive on the bike? I sure am, especially when I'm in a ride with people I know. But I'm also a lot easier on myself, now, when I need to scale back. Sometimes it's just enough to get through that Tunde ride in one piece.
So many thoughts, but like my freeform soup methodology, they will have to wait until a few deadlines have passed. HOWEVER, I do want to thank AHP for affirming my decision, made in the last 24 hours or so, to never ever ever ever sign up for Strava.