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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Peloton as Pedagogy

I’m hooked. How did Peloton do it? Pedagogy.

December 2, 2021
 
 

OK, I’ll just admit it.

I’ve become one of those Peloton people.

I’m not even sure how it happened. I swear, getting the bike was my wife’s idea, a pandemic-induced purchase to provide a fitness option when we were largely confined to our home. I was a skeptic, remembering the treadmill we carted to four different locations that mostly served as a place to hang clothes.

Repetitive exercise in a closed room, even with music or a TV nearby, is simply boring, and I couldn’t see how taking spin classes—which I’d never done—during which someone yammers at me to pedal harder while music blares in the background was going to be better.

But now, having just spent a week away from the bike over the holiday, upon arriving home, I realized I’d missed it.

I know, bonkers. It got me thinking about how Peloton uses pedagogy to engage its users, and how that pedagogy worked on me. I haven’t put all these thoughts together into a fully coherent theory, but given that this is a blog where I have a long history of working out ideas on the (digital) page, I figured I’d start with some observations.

Initial Presentation Matters

Peloton achieves this in two ways. For one, the bike looks good and works well. You truly don’t mind it taking up a corner of the spare bedroom, and when you’re on it, it’s easy to use and smooth to ride.

Also, the Peloton instructor corps is, in the words of Derek Zoolander, “really, really, really ridiculously good-looking.” To their credit, it is a diverse group, and there is even a range of body types (within the boundaries of the obviously visibly fit), but for the duration of a class you will be staring at someone who is both attractive and charismatic.

(Anne Helen Petersen, the top public-facing Peloton scholar, has a fascinating take on the particular brand of parasocial celebrity that Peloton instructors occupy.)

Accessibility Is Important

I had a very slow start on the bike after it arrived in March, using it maybe five days in the first month, but the thing was always there, available to try. I’ve just ridden over 200 miles in the month of November, and it would’ve been more if I hadn’t left town before Thanksgiving for a week.

There are live classes, but I’ve never taken one. Even riding five days a week, there’s more recent classes I’m interested in than I can use, and the full library of previous classes is always available.

For nonbike classes, everything is accessible on my phone through an app.

A Base of Shared Practice Is Helpful

The core of the Peloton experience is the pedal stroke, and on the pedal stroke, all Peloton instructors sing from the same hymnal, essentially that the goal is to make your stroke as round as possible, a combination of pushing down with one leg while pulling up with the other so you are generating an efficient 360-degree force, rather than alternately mashing down on one pedal, then the other.[1]

Instructors also preach the importance of good posture on the bike—shoulders down, grip loose, lifting gently through the core. No matter which instructor you ride with, you’re going to get these basics with reminders throughout the ride.

But Differentiation Also Matters

The classes come in different lengths (five to 60 minutes), intensities (recovery to high intensity), types (climb, interval, etc. …). The music is themed, with any permutation you can imagine from single-artist classes (Foo Fighters cooldown ride), to genre (’80s pop, yacht rock, ’90s alternative, jam band, etc. …), to themes (Pride ride).

Some instructors are wedded to the beat of the music for your pedaling cadence, while others treat it as a suggestion. My favorites forge a middle ground, as embodied in one of Denis Morton’s catchphrases: “I make suggestions, you make decisions.”

And of course each instructor is a different person and personality. Alex Toussaint brings an intensity that terrifies me, but maybe I’ll be able to handle someday. Christine D’Ercole (another one of my favorites) offers a kind of emotional vulnerability to the class that becomes its own form of encouragement. Cody Rigsby monologues about whatever is in his head. Jenn Sherman gives off a deliberate tough, but fun, mom vibe. Ben Alldis appears to have no interests beyond fitness and club music, and sometimes this is exactly what you want.

For me, the music is the No. 1 criteria, followed by instructor, which means I ride primarily with the instructors closest to my own age (Morton, Sherman, D’Ercole), or younger folks who share my taste.[2] In terms of the type of rides, I just mix it up, making sure that at least one per week is low-impact.

Once You Have Someone Hooked, You Can Expand Engagement

In addition to the bike, I’m now doing Peloton yoga, stretching, strength and meditation classes. I’ve done some activity for 68 consecutive days and counting, and often mix and match on a given day.

Motivation Is Key (and Comes in Different Forms)

When it comes to activity for the purposes of fitness, motivation has always been the bane of my existence. Through college, I did sports because they were fun. Later, I exercised in order to attempt to forestall death, but I never approached, say … running five miles with any kind of enthusiasm. If I put in four consecutive days of a minimum of 30 minutes of activity in a week, I’d congratulate myself and take three days off.

Somehow, I now look forward to my fitness-related activities and have carved out at least an hour a day for them. I don’t worry about motivation anymore. I simply do whatever makes sense on a given day. I’m still not sure how that happened.

For the competitive, externally motivated types, Peloton engages in a lot of gamification. You can get a badge for the number of rides you’ve completed, consecutive days, doing rides for special occasions or meeting monthly challenges. Many of the badges mean nothing to me—stretching to Ed Sheeran songs does not feel worthy of commemoration—but for others, maybe collecting badges feels good.

Each ride also has a leaderboard that allows you to compare yourself to others taking the same class. In the early days, I was in the bottom 20 percent of people completing the class, and I thought I’d be energized to climb that curve, but that didn’t happen. I now hide the leaderboard while I ride and pay little attention to where I rank. Checking back at today’s ride, I was bang on the median, but I wouldn’t have bothered to look if I wasn’t writing this post.

More important for me has been my progress against myself in terms of “output,” a metric generated by the intersection of cadence and resistance. Month to month, I can see how my average output has increased, and levels that were once difficult are now achievable.[3]

But far more important than that number is how I feel (good!), and what I’ve internalized about exercise and fitness for the first time in a life that I would’ve said was plenty active before now.

Word on the (Wall) street is that Peloton’s stock price is in for some rocky times as we figure out what place it has in a post-pandemic world (should that arrive). The Omicron variant has led to an increase in value.

It’s only been seven months for me, so I can’t say my adherence to Peloton is for life, but if something replaces it, it will have to tick similar boxes in terms of its pedagogical approach.


[1]This is actually very hard to do and takes a lot of practice.

[2] Sam Yo is a British cat who looks to be about 35 but has a deep love for American soul music. Emma Lovewell was forging her taste as a kid by listening to the stuff I was into in college. Emma Lovewell actually got me to embrace LCD Soundsystem, a band that I hadn’t connected with during their heyday.

[3] Apparently, it’s a little fruitless to gauge yourself against other users, because not all bikes are calibrated in the same way, and some people even cheat by hacking the bike in order to “win” a ride.

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