Each week, Shannon Palus will test health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.
Readying yourself to work out can, in 2019, feel like preparing to go on a stage. Blush “makes me feel strong,” model Adriana Lima recently told Glamour, as the face of Puma’s new gym-ready Maybelline collection. Sweat-friendly makeup lines pair perfectly with fashion-friendly gym clothes (leggings with tons of cutouts don’t exactly make thermodynamic sense, but they do look cute). Styled social media selfies are part of a regular routine for many—more than once, I’ve caught myself in the crossfire of a fitness instructor’s Instagram story.
At the Peloton workout studios in New York City’s West Village, working out is done more explicitly for the camera. A sign next to a pile of towels explains that “all classes are streamed live to homes around the country,” and to “please follow the direction of the instructor so as not to distract from the live production.” The workout class I’m about to attend will be streamed out to customers throughout the country—the feature that separates Peloton from your average boutique workout class. Peloton users purchase a Peloton machine for a few thousand dollars, then use the equipment’s glossy Android tablet screens to tune in to instructors teaching from Peloton’s studios in New York. Unlimited access to these classes—which can be “attended” live or watched later—costs $40 a month for equipment owners, or $20 via a recently launched app that streams the classes to a smart phone. Like a comedian with a studio audience, instructors perform each class for a roomful of cyclers or runners, who, as with any fitness studio, pay about $30 a pop for a 45-minute workout. That’s what I’m here for.
Peloton is best known for its spin classes, but as I am fundamentally not a bike-in-place-er, I am checking out one of the brand’s latest offerings, the “Tread.” Since I’m on a press pass, I’m accompanied by a pair of PR minders who will be taking the class alongside me. Our trio agrees it is early for a workout (8 a.m.!). We enter the studio, where all treadmills point to a central machine where an instructor, wearing a shiny sports bra and a Jenny Slate–ish smile, is warming up. A handful of cameras are perched at various angles. I take my place on a machine in the second row, out of frame. A woman wearing black, like a stagehand, counts down the start of the live stream, and we’re off, jogging away.
I am into it. If you are the kind of person who likes running (me) and being included (also me), it is not hard to be into it. The music is loud and clubby, the lighting is soft green-blue. It helps that running involves endorphins (I often marvel at how workout brands just attach logos and price tags to something that, once you muster the resolve to do it, simply feels good.).
The instructor offers playful encouragement (“Are you smiling? You better be!”) and nuggets of affirmation that sound approximately like what my college therapist used to tell me (“sometimes we go faster than other days, somedays we feel on top of the world, somedays not so much”). The treadmills are shinier and bouncier than your average machine, and in addition to buttons, they have knobs that can dial pace and incline up or down with a quick movement, making the experience of breaking into a sprint feel natural and seamless. At various points, the instructor raises her Peloton-branded plastic water bottle (everyone in the studio has one) and says “Cheers!” Throughout the class, she acknowledges runners at home, shouting out their user names, or addresses the whole room with a “go team!” I’m not sure what team we’re on exactly, but I’m happy to be a part of it.
The exercise kinship in the room that day—and with runners tuning in from across the country—had been in the works for nearly a century. Peloton is the great-grandbaby of a fitness guru named Jack LaLanne. In 1936, he opened what his estate claims was the “first ever modern gym,” the “Jack LaLanne Physical Culture Studio.” “At the time he was heavily ridiculed and criticized for charging money for people to exercise,” the bio on his website explains. But his vision was clear: Exercise’s fancier pieces of equipment weren’t just for athletes. They could be sold to the average person, too.
When television blossomed as a medium, LaLanne did too. He pioneered what’s credited as the first fitness program, in which he promises to help people watching at home look better and feel better. In his first episode, he extols the virtues of toning one’s face, and explains how to work out while sitting in a chair. Like modern fitness instructors, he ties working out to a higher well-being: “He’s smiling down on you, for making an effort,” he tells viewers. “Our bodies are God’s living temples.” This laid the groundwork for the modern fitness movement, of which LaLanne is widely recognized as the grandfather: “There is not a single person in the world of fitness that does not owe you a salute,” alleges a featured testimonial on his website from Richard Simmons.
Fitness classes gained legitimacy in the late ’70s, when the American College of Sports Medicine recommended that everyone work out three to five times a week, writes Devon Powers, an associate professor of advertising at Temple University, in a paper exploring the phenomenon. Today’s fitness brands follow largely in LaLanne’s footsteps, attempting to bridge charismatic and hot instructors with consumers across a variety of platforms, including studios, books, conventions, apps, and Instagram accounts. “It’s a much more intimate connection now,” Powers said.
Powers first became interested in the phenomenon of niche exercising classes while doing CrossFit and noticing that some participants followed their instructors’ advice on whether to work out post-injury over their own doctors’. She calls the phenomenon “branded fitness.” In this view, each brand sells its own mini-sport with its own idiosyncratic goals, machines, uniforms, and even health advice. CrossFit devotees, for example, work out at special gyms called “boxes” and train to compete in CrossFit games. SoulCycle has a line of clothing that features the brand’s signature yellow and playful skulls; it also sells grapefruit candles so your own home can smell like the studio. Orangetheory has special heart rate monitors, which participants use to try to hit a “science-backed” target called the “Orange Zone.”
These communities are fun. They’re also expensive. When I spent a year as a member of the luxury gym Equinox ($205/month), my workout goal became hitting a certain number of “check-ins” on the Equinox app, which provided a counter and encouragement. I bought a $70 Lycra crop top at the gym gift shop that was in line with the aesthetics of other Equinox-goers. I found myself DM-ing my favorite instructor of a class called “Best Butt Ever” about self-esteem. I watched a budgeting video from my restorative yoga instructor, who had spent part of class telling us how she got out of debt. Equinox successfully creeped into the rest of my identity. (I also loved it—if there were an Equinox near my current apartment, I would still belong.)
Peloton aims to cultivate this microworld, too. In addition to the specialized equipment, Peloton sells clothing bearing their logo, while instructors cultivate personal followings on Instagram, bearing abs alongside motivational quotes and a #TrainPeloton hashtag. In the spring, Peloton will host a “homecoming” in New York for people across the country who Pelotons to work out together in person, a capstone to all those miles (of course, logged in the app, which dispenses virtual badges for hitting milestones).
As I peruse the classes, which range from single miles to hourlong sessions, it strikes me that the point of doing Peloton isn’t to train for something like a marathon (running exclusively indoors is a poor way to prepare your body for road or trail). It’s to be fit enough to participate more fully in Peloton—to confidently snag a machine in the front row, to get shoutouts from the instructor for hitting a milestone in the number of classes you’ve taken, all of which keeps paying for more Peloton. Pricey status is part of the appeal: The slick, angular Peloton Tread is designed to look good on camera. And as a recent viral Twitter thread pointed out, the brand certainly seems comfortable with affiliating itself with luxury:
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I cannot fit a Peloton treadmill in my small apartment (though Peloton’s PR team was eager to lend me one), nor could I afford to buy one, anyway. But last June, the company launched an app that features the same content streamed to the pricey machines, including access to the livestreamed classes as they’re happening. I can download this app and use it at my New York Sports Club, which offers a standard collection of Stairmasters, etc., beneath a bunch of florescent lights. After my pleasant experience with the live-streamed workout class, I think that it could be a nice life hack to spruce up my plain gym membership with boutique exercise content for $20 a month.
I envision myself joining the fold. I excitedly sign up for the free trial before heading to the ancient treadmills at my gym. I start watching a recorded class on my tiny, cracked iPhone screen. The app tells me that two other people are also streaming the class, perhaps from their own Pelotons (though maybe from their own budget gyms). But without them next to me, I don’t really feel a connection. The instructor bobbing and shouting no longer feels inspiring or magically peppy. It feels like any other workout video. With no one watching, I turn off the class before it’s over and slink away.