What Peloton Means for the Future of Fitness

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What Peloton Means for the Future of Fitness

It’s 6:32 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, and the living room of my New York City apartment is dimly lit. My husband and children are mercifully still asleep, and I’m about to Peloton. Yes, it has become a verb, like Google or Xerox.

Instead of mounting the company’s signature indoor cycling bike, I prop my iPhone on the family media console, tap into the Peloton app, and start streaming a 30-minute Pop Yoga Flow class.

It’s a bit like a silent disco: Ariana Grande’s breakup bop “Thank U, Next” pours into my AirPods while Anna Greenberg, a cheerful instructor wearing red lipstick, her blonde hair in a topknot, leads me onto my knees and into spine-curving cat and cow poses. Following Greenberg, I balance on one knee, swivel to the side, and stretch my right arm overhead, just as Grande’s chorus — “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex” — drops.

This is how Peloton does yoga — with the same high-energy, telegenic instructors and catchy playlists, minus the pricey hardware. According to my stream, seven other Peloton users are also taking Greenberg’s class at the same time I am. I could “high-five” any of them if I felt like it.

“Peloton makes yoga so much more accessible,” Kristin McGee, another Peloton yoga instructor, tells Elemental. “You can practice with all-star instructors and still have a sense of community without leaving your house.”

While the fitness industry was caught up in the luxe brick-and-mortar boutique fitness boom of the early to mid-aughts — creating endorphin cults around SoulCycle, Flywheel, and Barry’s Boot Camp — Peloton was pedal strokes ahead. The company built a $2,000 indoor cycling machine — referred to by one blogger as “the fucking Acura of spinning bikes” — and launched a high-tech, at-home workout revolution. People in a given class can follow each other, share virtual high-fives, and even video chat while riding together in real time. By new industry estimates, Peloton now has more riders nationwide than SoulCycle—data the latter company disputes. The company has raised close to $1 billion in financing, in part from tech growth equity firm TCV — the same company that counts Facebook, Netflix, and AirBnB among its clients — and is considered a financial “unicorn” that’s worth an estimated $4 billion, sparking murmurs of an upcoming IPO.

Peloton emerged at a time when everything is available on demand. We can get a 12-pack of family-size toilet paper, a three-month supply of diapers, and a new bra delivered to our doorsteps by end of day tomorrow. We can Skype into work meetings instead of making business trips. That kind of ultra convenience is part of the Peloton origin story. According to CEO and co-founder John Foley, getting to SoulCycle or Flywheel became too hard after he and his wife, Jill, had kids. It opened his eyes to an underserved section of the increasingly fitness-obsessed market: all the people without the time, access, money, or motivation to trek to a trendy boutique class.

After the success of Peloton’s stationary bike — it has sold hundreds of thousands, though the company won’t provide specifics — Peloton is aggressively expanding to become a full-body, full-service fitness and technology company, and it’s forcing the rest of the industry to follow suit or fall behind.

“I think this is the wave of the future,” McGee says.

At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Peloton unveiled Tread, a $4,000 state-of-the-art treadmill that the company says is designed to be easier on the joints. It’s equipped with a tablet that livestreams running, power walking, and boot camp classes from a dedicated studio in New York City’s West Village.

Peloton announced yoga as its third “vertical” late last year, and classes like the one I took from my living room are now streaming live via the bike and Tread tablets or through Peloton Digital — a 24/7 library of classes paid for via a $19.99 per month app (no bike or treadmill purchase required). Company president William Lynch hinted to me that Peloton’s next piece of covetable hardware could be a rowing machine. “Twenty years from now, we know people are going to be cycling and we know people are going to be running,” he noted of the two forms of exercises for which Peloton has built hardware. “The other one is probably rowing, as a third.”

Peloton even concedes that some people may want to venture outside their homes to workout — but even then the company strives to be of service. In 2018, Peloton rolled out a new feature on its app called “Outdoor,” which includes guided running, stretching, and race-prep classes that are delivered directly into users’ earbuds.

“The old version of your home gym was this sad, sort of dusty stationary bike,” says Liz Plosser, editor-in-chief of Women’s Health and a former senior director of content and communications at SoulCycle. “But then Peloton comes along with this high-level technology and brought this elevated fitness experience into the home.”

Peloton views its success as even more exalted. Foley told Strategy+Business that Peloton is neither an indoor bike nor a treadmill company, but an “innovation company.” As such, it’s part of the historical tradition of an “evolution in media technology pushing fitness forward,” says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School. Petrzela notes that in the 1950s, fitness expert and motivational speaker Jack LaLanne used television spots to nudge homemakers into aerobic bopping. The 1980s brought VHS and the dawn of the Jane Fonda and, later, the Richard Simmons Sweatin’ to the Oldies videotape boom. Paul Ryan’s preferred P90X DVDs — along with the Beachbody craze — followed. But it wasn’t until Peloton that livestreaming video — complete with the capacity for real-time connections and shoutouts across the miles — was adapted in a meaningful way for the fitness space.

What sets Peloton apart from your parents’ NordicTrack or Bowflex is the ability to be in your basement in, say, Illinois, but also virtually present in an exclusive indoor cycling class in New York. “Peloton’s main contribution is not getting a stationary bike in your home,” Petrzela says. “It’s getting a stationary bike that’s connected to this virtual network.”

This is clear on an arctic Monday night in December at Peloton’s indoor cycling studio in New York City, where approximately 50 people — this writer included — furiously pedaled in the dark on the company’s titanium-and-brushed-steel bikes.

At the front of the room, Robin Arzon, Peloton’s vice president of fitness programming and head instructor who is a lawyer turned ultramarathon runner with the body and swagger of J.Lo and a near-fanatical fan base, is shouting out riders by their usernames. There’s UncleCranky (“How we doin’?”), Momof3intheD (“Well done, queen!”), and a handle that makes Robin crack up and do a double take: SayonaraSpanx, who is celebrating her 300th ride.

“It felt like the ultimate reward,” SayonaraSpanx told me by phone a few days later.

While I was pedaling to Pink in New York, SayonaraSpanx, aka Veronica Tibbs, a 42-year-old high school Spanish teacher in the tiny town of Philo, Illinois, was livestreaming the 45-minute cycling class in her basement on the Peloton bike she shares with her fiancé, Chuck, and insisting — especially after Robin’s real-time recognition — that she felt no less connected to the excitement and energy of the class.

“I never feel alone,” she says. Though Tibbs has never met Robin or any of the other Peloton instructors she’s a fan of, she swears they are bonding, one class at a time, through the bike’s 22-inch tablet. “They’re my friends. They’re a second family.”

Back in August 2017, Tibbs was stuck in a rut. She was coming home from work drained, plopping down on the couch with a glass of wine to decompress, and gaining weight as her metabolism seemed to slow after 40. Desperate for change, she reluctantly mounted the Peloton bike Chuck purchased two years prior — up until then, the bike was serving as a very expensive clothes hanger — and slogged through a 20-minute ride with Robin. She could barely walk back up the basement stairs afterward, but 300 classes later, Tibbs is a convert, riding at least five times per week and graduating to tougher 45- and 60-minute rides.

“I never in a million years thought I would hear myself saying, ‘I enjoy sweating,’” Tibbs marvels. “Peloton has changed my life.”

It’s a refrain the Peloton team says they hear again and again. “Arguably, the Peloton bike has been the most disruptive productive in the fitness industry ever,” says Lynch, the company president. “But that’s a really narrow view of what we’re doing.”

Think of Peloton like a TV network and each instructor like a talk-show host, a Peloton producer tells me from the company’s New York control room, which is lit up with soundboards, speakers, Peloton tablets, and TV screens and is where all the content is recorded, directed, edited, and beamed to the ubiquitous tablets. Instructors are rigorously trained for the on-air action: There are more than two dozen live classes per day and a 24/7 library of prerecorded, highly specialized offerings — some 10 minutes, others 60, from beginner to advanced, with music ranging from jam bands to Greatest Showman theme rides, across the spectrum of cycling, Tread, yoga, stretching, and outdoor runs.

Peloton, Robin says, is “just like any media company or Hollywood studio.” Lynch, of course, does her one better: “We are one of the most prolific media companies to have launched in the last 10 years,” he tells me matter-of-factly.

Peloton’s vast buffet of class options makes it supremely customizable and convenient — not unlike a Netflix carousel. There is a particular premium on its quickie rides, stretches, or strength sessions that might run just five, 10, or 20 minutes: “We want to produce rides that are short enough that somebody could feel they could do it at 6 a.m. before their kid wakes up or at the end of a long workday,” Arzon tells me.

Which is precisely when Tibbs faithfully mounts her Peloton bike, five times per week, to ride with Robin. “To have this at your disposal every single day, 24 hours a day, there’s no excuse as far as it not working into your schedule,” she says. “If I had to get dressed up in my gear in the bitter cold of winter and go to a gym… the motivation probably would not be there.”

This past January, a viral Twitter thread skewered Peloton’s penchant for setting its ads in what appear to be posh apartments or luxe country homes. “Love putting my Peloton bike in the most striking area of my ultra-modern $3 million house,” read one tweet from @ClueHeywood. Sharing your Peloton workout nook has become a new Instagram brag, with some users posting photos of their $2,000 bike and $4,000 Tread placed side by side or looking out over ocean vistas.

But for all the fuss over the bike and treadmill, Peloton’s $4 billion disruption wasn’t built on its pricey hardware alone. Rather, “the crown jewel of the company is the Peloton household membership,” Lynch says, pointing to the $39 monthly fee that gives members access to its vast library of livestreaming and prerecorded classes. This is where Peloton is believed to reel in much of its profit. (The company won’t comment on specific profit margins but says it is more focused on long-term subscription retention over short-term hardware profit.) Like Netflix or Amazon Prime, Peloton requires only one membership per household, so couples and whole families can get the goods for the $39 price of entry — a few dollars more than a single boutique fitness class in New York City.

Peloton’s bike became a lot more affordable in late 2017, when it announced a $58 per month, no money down, 0 percent APR financing option. The financing payment plus the $39 membership fee comes to a total of around $97 per month, which, if split among a couple or a family, beats multiple gym memberships in Lynch’s book. “We were sick of hearing from people, ‘Oh, Peloton’s this… rich person’s product,’” Lynch says. “It’s just not when you do the math.”

Though even with its impressive valuation and plans to build a 35,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art “superstudio” in New York to house all of its production operations at an estimated cost of “tens of millions of dollars,” according to Lynch, in its six years of existence, Peloton hasn’t exactly made working out more democratic. A rep tells me the company is planning to roll out a community-focused social impact program in 2019.

“Peloton is doing an amazing thing in improving the quality of the home exercise experience,” Petrzela says. “But I think there’s so much transformative, amazing stuff that could happen with that technology in rec centers and hospitals and rehab facilities and P.E. classes. I hope that’s the direction things will go.”

Critics notwithstanding, Peloton’s digital-first philosophy is gaining a groundswell of devotees. The company boasts a passionate fan base that calls itself the “Pelofam,” including several Facebook subgroups like Peloton Riders for Christ, Working Moms on Peloton, and Peloton Female Physicians.

For these superfans, Peloton’s appeal goes far beyond convenience. Videos by Fonda and Simmons were convenient too. So was Suzanne Somers’ ThighMaster. But ultimately they were flat and one-dimensional. Simmons couldn’t shout live through the TV to a mother in her den on Long Island. According to Lynch, the ability for one member to video chat into another member’s ride from their phone — even if they’re not riding themselves — is coming soon.

“We made something that inherently has been lonely — working out at home in your home gym or your bike — and we’ve brought that element of community,” Lynch says.

Nowhere is this ethos more present than on the Official Peloton Member page on Facebook, with 126,000 members and counting. It is not sponsored in an official capacity by Peloton, but it is often cited as proof positive of the community. There, members post photos of new bikes and celebrate Peloversaries — making it to your 100th “century” ride is a biggie — and occasionally complain about hardware repairs, often tagging comments with their usernames to make more “friends.” Together, they plot periodic Home Rider Invasions at Peloton’s New York cycling studio, where riders agree to go to the same class to ride together in person. The company eventually stepped in to help organize one such weekend and renamed it “Homecoming.”

“You find yourself competing with the elite of the elite and rooting for the underdog,” says Dawn Corso, a family physician in Big Sky, Montana, and a member of the Peloton Female Physicians group. “There are very pregnant women posting photos of themselves on the bike, and you’re inspired by it.” A former boutique fitness junkie in New York, Corso now rides her Peloton — overlooking the Rocky Mountains — about six days per week at 4 a.m., a time when most gyms aren’t even open.

Peloton’s social and financial success is spawning a steady stream of copycats — a bonafide Peloton Effect. It’s estimated that digital fitness will reach $27.4 billion in value by 2022. There’s the NordicTrack Commercial S22i Studio Cycle indoor bike, which has a Peloton-esque $1,999 price tag, a 22-inch screen, and live and on-demand classes. There’s also a downmarket Schwinn offering of an indoor bike and social app for sale online at Walmart.

The indoor cycling giants Peloton beat to the at-home workout punch are also seeing the light. In 2017, SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan told me in an interview for Vanity Fair that the indoor cycling giant was weighing an at-home bike option. That same year, Flywheel debuted its Fly Anywhere bike, billed as an “extension” of its in-studio experience and priced, like Peloton, around $2,200. A year later, in September 2018, Peloton filed a lawsuit against Flywheel, accusing it of stealing its proprietary technology. Peloton will not comment on the ongoing legal matter, but in a statement, Flywheel said it “firmly denies” Peloton’s claims and “strongly believes” that its product does not infringe on Peloton’s patents.

“Peloton’s lawsuit is a classic example of a big business trying to intimidate a competitor out of the marketplace,” Flywheel said. “We will continue to vigorously stand up for ourselves against Peloton’s claims.”

When asked about Peloton as a competitor, Matt O’Connor, general manager of on-demand and home fitness business at Flywheel, told me that the company — and its characteristic competitive leaderboard — predates Peloton. “We have been doing this since 2010,” he says. “We are the folks who originated and pioneered metrics-based indoor cycling.”

He does concede, however, that there is “perhaps more awareness of at-home fitness options because there are other players in the market… and I think that actually helps everyone in the market.”

Peloton may have kicked off the modern fitness/tech movement, but other companies want to to evolve even further and do away with hardware altogether, or at least minimize its footprint. The Mirror is a $1,495 Jetsons-esque tablet that can be mounted on your wall and livestreams cardio, Pilates, boxing, barre, and other classes. “There were always these devices that people were working out with at home,” says CEO Brynn Putnam, a former professional ballerina. “But the majority of the country doesn’t have the space to do so.” Another hardware-free player is Obé, the livestreaming service that requires just a phone or laptop as a bright, millennial-pink-lit portal to dozens of classes, including dance, HIIT, sculpting, yoga, and more, for $27 per month — an intentional number chosen by co-founders Ashley Mills and Mark Mullett, former CAA agents and boutique fitness class devotees, because it’s the average cost of a workout class across the country.

“We’re really democratizing the boutique fitness experience,” Mullett says. “You don’t have to have, you know, a Park Avenue zip code.”

As exercising at home becomes increasingly appealing, it’s fair to contemplate whether Peloton and its copycats are simply feeding into our tablet fascination and adding another way for us to connect with “friends” rather than meet people in person for a run or workout. On Fridays, members of the Peloton Facebook group stand alone and take selfies clutching drinks, toasting each other in the comments for a virtual “happy hour.”

Peloton’s lack of IRL human interaction is a barrier to entry for Elizabeth Saab, a reporter in Houston, Texas. Saab bought a Peloton last year, “but I can’t make myself get on it. I need to go to classes — not look at my dirty laundry in my den while I work out by myself.”

Lynch says the Pelofam “is empowering, and it makes you feel good. It’s not creepy. All the baggage of social networks, Peloton has none of that.”

It may even be more social than working out at a brick-and-mortar studio with 30 to 50 people who are hardly acknowledging each other anyway. At Lynch’s first Barry’s Boot Camp class years ago, he recalls, “I was petrified… no one helped me. No one encouraged me. It was just thrown into the deep end without floaties.” By contrast, he says, a new Peloton rider who bonded with other members in the Facebook group might get on the bike and “get high-fives 2,000 times because everyone knows it’s my first ride.”

There’s no proof that Peloton is luring gym members or yogis away from their old in-person exercise ways or entirely replacing workout buddies or even post-sweat cocktails. Rather, it is part of a booming fitness industry — among both in-home and traditional gyms — as wellness increasingly becomes a priority and a way of life.

For Tibbs, making it to Peloton’s New York studio is a pipe dream, but tonight she’s rocking out in her basement in Philo, Illinois, just a shoutout away from Robin and me in New York. “It just makes me realize that every day we wake up, it’s a blessing,” Tibbs says. “One thing Robin always says is, ‘We are lucky we get to do this.’”

What Peloton Means for the Future of Fitness

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