This Is Your Brain on Peloton

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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’s 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 a 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.