From Peloton to Soul Cycle to Tae Bo, why we’re falling in love with fitness
When Tae Bo was all the rage in the late 1990s, Amanda Biers Melcher dove in headfirst. Living in Los Angeles, she says she’s tried “every workout” – barre cardio, Bikram yoga when it was (literally) hot, etc. But there was something special about the martial arts-inspired cardio fitness craze.
Biers Melcher was part of star instructor Billy Blanks’ “cult following” who worked out of a studio in Sherman Oaks – now a Chipotle – alongside stars like Brooke Shields, Reese Witherspoon and Magic Johnson, even appearing in the one of the workout videos. The day she and a friend — both new moms — showed up for a class taping they had been invited to, some of the excitement dissipated. “We gave the young woman our names with a clipboard and she said, ‘Oh well, the alternate body types are here,'” she said, recalling her friend bursting into tears when they realized what was happening. “We were the fat girls in the video.”
Despite the embarrassing mishap, Biers Melcher stuck to the workout…until she didn’t. Looking back, she’s not quite sure why she stopped going — at some point, the fashion kind of faded. “A lot of people just changed their minds,” she says. “Everyone does what’s hot, then something else gets hot, and everyone does that.”
Like millions of people, Biers Melcher gave a significant amount of her time, energy, and perhaps some dignity for a workout she truly enjoyed. And then, like millions of people, she moved on.
Billy Blanks is still around and you can still find people doing Tae Bo. But it’s not nearly as widespread as before. That’s the problem with fitness trends: they fluctuate constantly, often by design. Fitness is not inherently a consumer business, but we tend to approach it as such. The health and wellness industry is more than happy to oblige.
“Fitness is experienced in this country primarily as a consumer product, so the rules of the markets apply to exercise almost more than the rules of science or health,” Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, fitness historian physics, professor at the New School and author of the forthcoming book fit nation. “There’s this constant cycle of exercise trends, mostly because you need to keep creating new products and flashy experiences to get people to spend money.”
There’s always something that’s hot (like Peloton six months ago, and SoulCycle a little before, and CrossFit a little before), and there’s always something that’s going to replace it, just like in fashion. , said Rina Raphael, a health and health specialist. wellness writer and author of upcoming book The gospel of well-being. “There’s no money in telling people to go for a walk, is there?”
The science of fitness is changing, but not as fast as fashions
There are changes in fitness governed by breakthroughs in exercise science, but these changes are usually slow, Mehlman Petrzela explained. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, cardio and aerobics were embraced as a type of exercise anyone could do. Then, in the 1990s, there was a shift to strength training being good for general health, and away from worrying that strength training would make you “muscular”. Over the past 20 years, there has been more research into mindfulness and meditation. “You see a lot of exercise programs incorporating this broader wellness perspective,” she said.
The rate at which exercise science is changing is, to say the least, much slower than the rate at which different practices are changing. There is a difference between how exercise trends are determined by science and the capitalist drive to repackage and resell.
If the goal of your training is to do cardiovascular activity, the type of training you end up doing isn’t that different whether you’re running on a treadmill or dancing in a studio. If you’re trying to do low-impact strength, barre and Pilates aren’t light years apart. “It’s not so much a different exercise modality being sold to you as a different way of doing it or a different package,” Mehlman Petrzela said.
Workout companies and fitness studios are constantly competing with all sorts of gimmicks and gimmicks to lure people in. I’m a bit of a fan of this stuff and have tried my fair share of fad workouts. For a while, I tried Mark Fisher Fitness, a queer-friendly studio-boutique in New York City that calls its members “ninjas” and is adorned with unicorn memorabilia. I once took a dance and fitness class where you put on headphones and dance to terrible European dance music in front of the New York Public Library, claiming the experience wasn’t completely humiliating. Another time I took a spin bootcamp course that was so hard to take I wanted to leave, except another guy did it first. I tried CrossFit for a week and almost immediately injured myself.
“In this very, very crowded market, you have to sell a different experience or a different package,” said Mehlman Petrzela. Sometimes we try the new thing because we’re marketed and not because it’s actually different or good or advisable. But that’s not inherently a bad thing, she noted — people like different things for different reasons.
People have all sorts of different motivations for dropping out of an exercise program: they get bored and look for something else, or they find that certain workouts aren’t sustainable over a long period of time, physically or psychologically. I spoke to a man for this story who started running in these five finger shoes for a while until he stepped on a rock resulting in an injury that took him eight months to shake off . I spoke to another woman who got into making workout videos based on one of these mini trampolines, but had to give up after moving to an apartment building where her downstairs neighbor didn’t like not really that she bounces every morning.
“There are a whole bunch of group fitness trends that always pass. They fall out of favor for different reasons,” Raphael said.
Peloton ain’t dead, it ain’t gonna be the big thing forever
So I guess that brings us to the Platoon of it all, arguably the last Big Hot Thing in office. The connected fitness company was well positioned to take off at the start of the pandemic, when many gyms closed and people needed options to exercise from home. Consumers wanting a bike or a treadmill faced months of backorders, and Peloton’s market cap topped $50 billion. But like so many fitness companies before it (not to mention spinning competitors Flywheel and SoulCycle), Peloton’s star has started to fade.
“We haven’t seen Peloton evaporate as a company yet, what we’re seeing is it evaporate as a perceived world-changing mega-cap,” said Simeon Siegel, analyst at BMO Capital Markets.
Peloton remains popular among many of its users and has millions of subscribers, and it remains a nearly $4 billion business. Yet it’s a far cry from the breakout story it was considered just a few years ago. As Vox has documented in the past, investors grew wary of the company, which faced manufacturing and logistical challenges. People just aren’t going to buy unlimited amounts of treadmills and bikes. And like so many fitness trends before, there’s nothing particularly special about what Peloton bikes and treadmills do in the first place.
“What Peloton has done so well is less about creating a really innovative product and more about telling a really compelling story,” Siegel said. Essentially, Peloton’s success has been in its community far more than its engineers. “The rise and fall of Peloton has been written by storytellers far more than it has been written by numbers.”
Even when they fade from the limelight, most exercise trends never go away. “There are still people doing almost all of these programs, except the ones that are total scams that are refuted,” Mehlman Petrzela said. (See: those vibrating abdominal belts, although there are probably people who use them too.)
Maybe not many people do Tae Bo, but they take classes that incorporate boxing. Heck, you can always find Tae Bo lessons on YouTube. Biers Melcher is well aware of the Peloton trend, but she insists that Tae Bo was different. “It lacks the kind of star power, I think, or the community star power of Tae Bo,” she says. “Each lesson was like a rock concert.”
The same can be said of Peloton. A recent ride with singer Lizzo crashed the app, so many people tried to join. Some of his instructors, including Cody Rigsby and Robin Arzón, are celebrities in their own right, just like Billy Blanks was 20 years ago. SoulCycle, which has lost some of its shine during the pandemic, has spawned a cult following that has fans clamoring for bikes at its ultra-exclusive studios. Some fitness programs have managed to become almost a religion for their followers.
There’s no exercise trend that lasts forever, except maybe running and walking, but again, beyond selling shoes and smartwatches, there aren’t many money to be made. And really, who among us doesn’t have at least one long-discarded piece of fitness equipment sitting somewhere in our garages, basements, or closets?
It’s okay to try something new, even if it’s expensive (as long as you can afford it), and hey, maybe you’ll like it. Indeed, experts say that whatever the latest fad in fitness, the most important thing is to find the one that works for you, because it’s the one that has a chance to stick, or at least be the most effective so far. As Raphael says, “Find something you really like.”
We live in a world that constantly tries to trick and fool us, where we are always surrounded by scams, big and small. It may seem impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart in examining all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. welcome to The great pressure.
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