By Steven Clark
Relationship status update: I am in love with a man who shows up for me daily, encourages me to keep going, and tells me he is so proud of me – yes, I am in an imaginationship with Ben, the Peloton spin instructor.
It’s hardly surprising that, as this young woman acknowledged so casually on social media, Peloton instructors have at times become the epicenter of our fantasies. After all, during the height of the pandemic, if togetherness was any indicator, many Peloton users spent more time with their instructors than they did with their workplace colleagues or members of their own families.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that these trainers tend to be young, in great shape, and extremely attractive. They wear tight, revealing, and often colorful attire (like you were expecting to see a flabby, middle-aged, bulldog-faced trainer wearing a saggy pair of gray sweatpants?). Unlike celluloid or boy band heartthrobs, they also seem to have their clients’ best interests at heart in helping them become the very best they can be. Envision your favorite college professor or at-work mentor, only looking like Bradley Cooper or Jennifer Lawrence.
For more than a year now, those of us who have been pandemic-observant have largely resisted the allure of restaurants and airplanes and visits to friends and family, and have, until very recently, been locked out of sporting events and movie theaters. Meanwhile, Zoom or TEAMS – two names we could not have identified a year ago – have dominated our lives, even those of us who actually come to the office.
While gyms have opened with some restrictions, they have largely become the mold after the storm, residual damage of the virus. Whether due to a fear of COVID-19 exposure or a distaste for sweating behind respiratory-inhibiting masks, many one-time workout aficionados, anxious not to gain the COVID-20 (pounds), have transitioned to working out in the privacy of their own homes. This may be in home gyms or on rubber mats laid across vinyl bathroom floors.
As a result, no entity outside, perhaps, of Zoom itself, has emerged as a bigger winner in the business world than Peloton (or at least until questions arose over the safety of its treadmill) – with an increasing number of people willing to plunk down $2,000 for a stationary bicycle and the $49-a-month subscription fee to view live and taped workout sessions. The gold-standard for digitally-streamed exercise equipment companies has seen its paid digital subscriptions soar 470 percent in the past year to about 625,000 members. The demand is so great that orders often take months for delivery.
So, as a recent article in The Atlantic explained, at a time when human interaction is largely curtailed and we exist in a virtual world, the Peloton trainer, for all that he or she brings to us during these times, sits atop a pedestal.
Sure, they are not real flesh and blood but instead, as The Atlantic article points out, “essentially digital avatars.” This makes for romantic fantasies very different than the more traditional ones that may have led to stalking the spin instructor outside of class. As the article continues, “Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time anyone’s lusted over someone on the internet. But, the distinction here is in the emotional bond that Peloton users ascribe to their instructors. This isn’t about kink or leering or transgression or transaction. People are legitimately attached to people they don’t know and most likely will never know.”
I can speak, abashedly, from personal experience. Too practical (i.e. cheap) to purchase the Peloton for myself, my wife and I invested in one for our daughter who lives in Baltimore and, even before the pandemic, was too busy to join a gym. Now, whenever we visit her, finding the time for a daily Peloton workout is a priority for me. The monitor on the bike includes my initials and my clip-ons lie a body length away.
Where I initially chose my exercise routines based on musical genre – in my case, classic rock, deciding whether to sweat to the music of Queen, Ozzy and Guns N’ Roses, or something a bit more mellow like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and the Boss – I soon limited my options exclusively to those workouts led by my favorite instructor. Not only did I like Olivia’s gentle manner in pushing her “team” through demanding routines, but I found her looks and manner very appealing. Sort of the girl next door, imploring me to push the cadence over 80 and the resistance between 40 and 50.
Pretty soon, I became such a regular of Olivia that when we didn’t travel to Baltimore for several months, I received an email from her. (No, I’m not delusional – certainly some data mining system used by Peloton had noticed my extended absence). My brother in Florida, who I made the mistake of mentioning my instructor attachment, only further incited the matter by mailing me a Peloton shirt with a letter simply signed “Best, Olivia.” It all felt very uncomfortable.
In Baltimore recently, I based my choice on tunes (and so used a different Peloton instructor). Something, however, was missing. I may have burned the same number of calories, but it was not the same. I felt less fulfilled. Last weekend, back in Baltimore and on the Peloton bike, I searched this time by instructor. The music was secondary. I was back with Olivia.