What It Means to Ride at Any Ability
"The wellness industry is not designed for people with physical disabilities."
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 three pieces in the series can be found here, here, and here.
In the last edition, I asked for pitches from people who engage with the bike differently than I do. Today I’m thrilled to feature Sherry Ansari’s words and perspective here today. Your support means I’m able to pay her above market rate for her work.
It’s 6:45 a.m., my family is asleep, and I am in the basement strapping into my shoes. I leave them physically attached to the pedals of my bike, because clipping in and out is a skill I have yet to master. I start Alex Toussaint’s Hip Hop ride and join 132 riders already in the class. My leaderboard name is nondescript, a nickname that few call me by. I don’t use any hashtags (but if I did, I’d be #boocrew and maybe #pelotonmoms). I prefer to remain as anonymous as possible.
“Unapologetically take this time for yourself,” Alex tells us. “You woke up today! Be grateful for that!” For the next thirty minutes, I will try my best. I will sweat, dance, and love almost every minute of it. I love to hate the hills, which are always the hardest part for me. But Alex is tough to hate. He ends the class by telling us: “The fact that you showed up is an automatic win for me today. Be proud of yourself.”
What’s weird is that I really am proud of myself. In class, I am not thinking that my left leg feels weaker than yesterday. I am not worrying about what this will mean for the rest of my day, and the various tasks and errands I might not be able to do. I’m not scared of falling, and I’m not thinking of ways to try to remain inconspicuous. Strangers will not ask me why I’m walking funny and nobody will be concerned for me. Many of those thoughts will come later. But these thirty minutes are the most freeing and stress-free part of my day.
The wellness industry is not designed for people with physical disabilities. My body may look like it belongs with other able-bodied people, but it does not always function that way. I have had multiple sclerosis (MS) for over 20 years. MS is a chronic, neurodegenerative autoimmune disease, which is a mouthful, but means that my immune system is attacking my brain and spinal cord. My disease will likely get worse and there is no cure. MS is relatively common here in Canada, where I live, and impacts everyone differently; chances are very high that you know someone with MS. We are everywhere. And if you’re a Peloton user, you may have even seen #MSWarrior or #MSWontStopUs on the leaderboard.
When I was first diagnosed at age 18, I promised myself it wouldn’t hold me back. In fact, like a lot of newly diagnosed people, I promised myself I was going to do it all, despite my illness. MS would not define me. And for a time, it worked. I barely told anyone about my disease. I graduated from university, moved overseas, earned my masters degree, ran a half marathon, traveled, married, established a career and had kids. But then — without any warning — my MS got worse. I didn’t have any choice: I had to slow down.
Activities I once loved were no longer possible. Running had been a time and place of pride for me: a testament to what my body could do despite my illness. But now my disease was in plain sight. There was no way for me to hide from it. I had to make modifications to my daily routines and activities. The grocery store and its seemingly endless aisles became a struggle. Most days I needed help picking up the kids from school (the obnoxious hill before the school entrance doesn’t help either). Today, I can’t walk a full block without taking a break. In fact, that block will leave me winded and weak. My balance is shaky. I’m often exhausted and am generally weaker on one side of my body.
After my MS got worse, I eventually dabbled in different forms of exercise. I tried swimming, kickboxing and hot yoga. But I always felt I wasn’t being challenged enough or was being challenged too much. It was hard to not compare myself to others in the room, a process that would generally lead to a round of self-pity. I created narratives of what I must look like to the outside world, how people were looking at me, wondering what was wrong with me and feeling sorry for me.
Others at the gym would proudly talk about progress they were making: their new muscle definition, their improved endurance. I was just happy to finish a workout on my feet. I spent more time and energy being ashamed of my inability and what people might think of me than actually enjoying my time. It didn’t help that I was often faced with well-meaning questions of what was wrong. Why do I move differently? Did I have a sports injury? I wanted to be invisible and just left alone.
One day, pleased with myself for finishing a difficult kickboxing class, a woman from gym remarked, “Why are you walking like that? I’ve never seen you do that before. What’s wrong?” Her question confirmed my insecurities: others were noticing my inability to keep up. Now they were asking about it. Sweaty and rushing out of the gym was not the time to open-up to this almost-stranger about my health challenges. And really, what is my responsibility for explaining to everyone why I move differently? To be honest, I still don’t have the answer to this question.
I left deflated. I canceled my kickboxing membership.
I accepted that no exercise would bring the same joy running once did — and that fitness would be yet another space where I felt I no longer belonged.
Then COVID hit. And so did the worst of my MS.
In the first months of lockdown, friends and colleagues would tell me how much they were enjoying their COVID splurge: the same bike that was popping up all over my social media feeds. I heard how difficult and addictive the classes were, how it was unlike anything you’ve tried before. And bonus! You can do it safely at home, physically distanced from the world. Around the same time, my physical therapist mentioned that a stationary bike could be beneficial. With MS, it is important to move your body and muscles in whatever capacity you can. We often have to find new and safe ways to keep our bodies in motion.
I was exhausted by virtual schooling and just generally tired of feeling sorry for myself. So I bought the the damn bike.
I was petrified. What if this just ended up as an expensive reminder of something else I couldn’t do? Would I enviously watch my husband pick up a new hobby? I was hopeful, but I was also prepared to face the same sort of disappointment I did at the gym.
When the bike arrived, I started cautiously. I did fifteen minute beginner rides, that was it. But I was ecstatic with how steady I was once I was clipped in. In fact, being clipped in brought security I didn’t have on my feet alone. When you’re clipped in, you don’t have to rely solely on your own balance. The bike keeps me firmly in place without the same risk of trips and falls. I was immediately hooked.
For me, the bike has become a place where my MS does not matter. On a Groove ride with Cody, I can dance along. On Alex’s “Ride to Greatness,” I am another team member, together working towards the same goal — contributing to the total output score. As part of the team, my individual score does not matter — only that I participated. On Tunde’s HIIT ride I am out of breath, left thinking I can’t possibly do another interval. But I’m able to push out another one — all without the fear of falling. The stats on the screen remind me I’m part of a group, but the only meaningful numbers are my own. Only I know if I fumble or need to slow down. The high fives coming my way don’t know how low my output is or how difficult it may have been to get on the bike that day.
I recognize that not everyone with MS — or any physical disability for that matter — is able to participate in this community. Not only is it financially restrictive, but physically limiting as well. I know how fortunate I am to even be able to physically ride a bike. Others may not find the same solace as I have in this community. I really get it, and I’m not saying, in any way, that this is a solution for everyone. But it is a solution for me, in this moment. In a world where I often feel excluded, I am included just as much as the triathlete or marathon runner on the leaderboard — and without having to stand out. I feel seen and accepted, but also, crucially, out of the public gaze.
Some have praised Peloton for its (incomplete, but still advancing) manifestation of the Health At Every Size (HAES) philosophy. In classes, there are no mentions of diets or weight or size. You’re not meant to fit into any ideal body type to be strong, because the purpose of fitness is to be well and healthy, regardless of size. But I also think that Peloton embodies a Health At Every Ability (HAEA) attitude. I feel like I am part of a community where I am pushed within my limits, but at the same time, the emphasis is not on how well I compare to others.
For many, the appeal of a Peloton ride is climbing the leaderboard and seeing your own progress against others in real time. For me, just seeing my username on the leaderboard and being included in a space I had previously decided was not for my body — it’s a thrill. And off the bike, I feel stronger and more confident in my body’s ability. Which means I’m not as self-conscious walking around in the day to day: I may still fumble, but I know what my body can still do. Going into my day post-ride, I have greater confidence knowing that I did something hard and I did it well.
A year ago, I would never have believed that I would have found such self-confidence in my body’s ability. That instead of being so focused on what I can no longer do, I would be finding new ways to move and challenge myself. But here I am, writing an article about it (!).
This entire piece has laid out my desire to remain anonymous, to just be another name on the leaderboard. Yet here I am celebrating, in a rather public way, how great it is to be inconspicuous. The irony is not lost on me. But what I have discovered has been so surprising and exciting. In the end, my progress might look different than the average person. For me, improvement also includes listening to my body and respecting how far I may be able to push it today. It means prioritizing rest days even when I’d rather not. It means recognizing that a 30-minute ride may not be possible, but a 10-minute one is just as great. But my progress exists, and the bike allows me to celebrate it.
Sherry Ansari lives in Canada and works in the healthcare industry. You can find more of her writing here.
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This is a really well-written piece and, as a disabled person, it makes me want to buy a Peloton, haha. I have cerebral palsy, and while I've seen gyms, classes, and other spaces (slowly) start to accept the idea of health at any size, the concept of health at any ability feels like it lags behind. Nobody really seems to know what to do with you when you just...can't do something or need a modification. It would feel awesome to have confidence in myself when working out and not get the stares and "you're using that machine wrong" comments (thanks, Bradley Gym Bro, I'm aware). This might be a solution to the weird competitive gym culture and the feeling that I can't keep up.
I agree with a previous comment that stories like Sherry's make me feel like I'm not alone. I hope I can use experiences like hers to become more confident and celebrate my progress, too -- even if it looks different.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful and important essay. My 18-year-old daughter is disabled (she has a rare form of muscular dystrophy that causes hypermobile joints, muscle weakness, pain, and fatigue), and I am happy to hear that Peloton is making an effort to work with disabled people.
A big problem in the fitness industry for disabled people is that the industry is set up for the able-bodied. It encourages us to push ourselves to the limit. The thinking is that muscles grow when they are stressed, and people improve their cardiovascular fitness and endurance when they force themselves to keep going through the pain.
But for disabled people the exact opposite is often the case: muscles, once damaged, may never recover. Disabled people can injure vulnerable joints if they push themselves to exhaustion. And well-meaning coaches, gym teachers, and trainers who ask a disabled person for “just one more rep/lap/try” risk humiliating the people they want to help. Plus it’s frustrating for the disabled person not to have his or her very real effort acknowledged. It might be all s/he can manage just to show up to class that day and stay standing.
I am hoping that we can let go of our gung-ho, workism culture in fitness and recognize that some of us are doing our very best, even if it might not look like it.