This Is Your Brain on Peloton

I think I’ve discovered the key to an active lifestyle. His name is Cody Rigsby, and he looks like a piece of Disney fan art — the kind where cartoon princes are rendered as photo-realistic living boys.

Today our prince sits alone in a dusky blue exercise studio, thighs pumping atop a gleaming black stationary bicycle. He wears a precise haircut and a Peloton tank top that reveals the Mickey Mouse tattoo inked into the muscle of his upper arm, which is very large. Over the next half an hour, he will lead a virtual spinning class, curate a playlist of early-aughts pop songs and deliver an extemporaneous speech on topics including: Oprah’s interview strategy; the merits of the British girl group Little Mix; historical dramas (“I have tried to watch ‘The Crown’ so many times and I just can’t, y’all”); multiple sclerosis awareness; women (“thank you for being fierce”) and Ashlee Simpson’s 2004 single “Pieces of Me,” which moves Rigsby to lead the class in a nostalgic meditation.

“It’s 2004,” Rigsby tells us. “You just bought a studded belt from PacSun. You’re feeling different and cool. Resistance: 40 to 50. Cadence: 75 to 80. Hands out long, hips stay back, rise up.” Rigsby jogs atop the bike and stares deeply into the camera. “You aren’t like the other kids,” he continues. “You didn’t shop at Abercrombie. You shopped at PacSun. Because you were unique.”

Before I met Cody Rigsby, I thought Peloton, the bourgeois exercise bike company that employs him, was about a slavish devotion to a techno-religious sect. I didn’t realize that it could also be about celebrities, accessories and the reimagining of the high school social hierarchy. Suddenly I was interested. I dislike exercise, so when I do it, I want my brain to feel as anesthetized as possible. And after I signed up for Peloton’s 30-day free trial of virtual content and hopped on the dusty Schwinn in my in-laws’ basement, I was zonked.

Logging on to one of Rigsby’s sessions feels like syncing up with a human iPhone, always swiping toward some new distraction. It keeps me just stimulated enough to alleviate the monotony and discomfort of exercise without prompting me to do any of my own mental work. Peloton is known for selling its ludicrously expensive bikes, but you don’t have to buy one to stream its classes. The company’s more significant offering is this: the total curation of the mind.

Exercise-as-entertainment is an American institution. See: Jack LaLanne, Richard Simmons, “The Biggest Loser.” The fitness guru’s sphere of influence has typically been centered on the body, with some wiggle room for related self-help psychobabble and musical appreciation. Now Peloton, which pumps out dozens of streaming classes a day, has introduced topicality and specificity to the genre. The company offers rides themed around Black History Month, Women’s History Month and the life philosophy of the television producer Shonda Rhimes.

In the extended Peloton universe, which besides the spinning classes also includes guided meditations, stretches, strength training and more, the instructors have carved out their own microgenres. The luminescent Ally Love is the queen of seated choreography. Jess King has developed a series she calls “The Jess King Experience,” incorporating campy costumes, dramatic camera angles, a DJ sidekick and extreme drama-kid vibes.

And Rigsby has the energy of a messy podcast host; as he rides, he might lead the class in a skills ranking of defunct boy bands (“Indisputably, Kevin is the hottest Backstreet Boy”) or break down the previous night’s television event. The day after Oprah’s royal exit interview, Rigsby began his class like this: “I’m bringing Meghan Markle energy into the ride, OK?”

Peloton may offer a magnetic trainer in every flavor, but they’re all in sync with the company’s overarching value system. The content is aimed at a class of people who can either afford to own a Peloton Bike ($1,895 or $2,495), or want to take virtual classes ($39 a month) alongside people who do. It tends to promote a palatable multiculturalism without being overtly political. (“I always think of the Peloton bike as a Trojan horse of diversity and acceptance,” Rigsby said last year. “I want to be able to change people’s hearts and open their minds to what a gay man is.”) But above all, Peloton worships at the altar of consumer technology.

While yoga blooms from a philosophical and spiritual tradition, spinning is about your relationship to the machine. You become one with the equipment; you literally clip yourself in. If a traditional bike ride offers some thrill from breezing around outside, Peloton represents a total mastery of the natural environment. The Peloton user submits to the uncharted terrain of Cody’s World; he decides when we are cruising down a flat road and when we are huffing up a hill.

Though we are isolated in our homes, we are bound together through a shared tactile experience with the product: thousands of legs twirling at the same pace, thousands of fingers twirling the knob just so. Part of the hypnotic appeal of the Peloton instructor monologue is how seamlessly the commentary slips into jargon about cadence and resistance. Through their physical prowess, the instructors lay claim to a broader social and even moral authority, and their classes suggest that the act of using the Peloton itself releases positive energy into the world.

On the right side of the screen, a roiling leader board ranks us by our level of physical exertion, and each user’s self-selected awareness hashtag rises and falls based on how hard she drives her body: #PeloForWine, #WilliamsSyndrome, #WearADamnMask. Since I don’t own the fancy company bike, my own hashtag — #FreeBritney — languishes out of view. Every class also functions as an infomercial for the Peloton line of equipment; I’ve found myself lusting after a Peloton bike just to inch closer to the imagined subject to whom the instructors speak.

Does this all sound a little terrifying? In most contexts, sure. I would not, for instance, want to be seated next to a Peloton instructor on an airplane. The first thing John Foley, Peloton’s C.E.O., does when he wakes up in the morning is drink water from his hands “until I feel like I’m going to throw up,” and my rational brain is skeptical of this person. But exercise encourages a special kind of mental gymnastics. When I’m working out, I suddenly welcome a parasocial relationship with a sweetly annoying person who can carry on his end of the conversation for 45 minutes straight, and my flowing endorphins ensure that I will be pair-bonded with him when the session’s up.

Social media companies work to stratify our personalities, isolating out various impulses and pumping in stimuli to satisfy them: Twitter me is wryly critical, Instagram me is a basic mom, and Peloton me is a capitalist shill in thrall to power. (Twitter me would hate Peloton me.) Recently the frothiest moments from Peloton workout videos have been skimmed off the app and floated to other social networks, where they are read differently. On TikTok, instructors are set loose as memes; on Twitter, they are pinned down and politically scrutinized.

I first noticed Rigsby when he went a little bit viral by delivering a sermon on Britney Spears’ longtime conservatorship as her song “Lucky” bumped in the background. Soon after that rant was celebrated on TikTok, another clip hit Twitter that sounded an alarm about Rigsby’s rise: He seemed to be employing Black vernacular, as laundered through white gay culture, while jokingly threatening a cartoon toddler, the “Rugrats” heel Angelica Pickles. This is the kind of absurd cultural performance that raises suspicions on Twitter but, shifted just one tab over, powers an appealingly thoughtless workout. Even when Rigsby is being lightly dragged across the internet, plenty of people are following close behind, demanding a link to the ride.

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