What is a Peloton supposed to do, exactly?

Peloton was sold on the hope that its continuous supply of connected infotainment would create customers for the long-term, which makes a fundamental mistake about how motivation works.

What is a Peloton supposed to do, exactly?

This essay originally published in the newsletter email with the 2021 Swole Woman Beastly Starter Kit Gift Guide; I’m separating it out for posterity.

I’ve written before about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation when it comes to working out. Intrinsic motivation is, for instance, “I want to work out regularly so that I’m not in physical pain all of the time”; extrinsic motivation is “my abs-having friend goes to the gym all the time, and so I’m going to get abs, but even more.” The general wisdom is that extrinsic motivation is maybe good for kickstarting a routine, but just doesn’t sustain us; I wrote a whole column about this.

This was on my mind when I read this piece on The Verge about the growing tension between users connected exercise device like Pelotons and the companies that make those devices. Essentially, Peloton is stumbling more that its business projections projected, because customers have not been as loyal as the company thought they would be. For one thing, users are starting to chafe at the idea that they need to subscribe to the device in order for it to be useful, and more specifically that they can’t watch anything except the closed-ecosystem, preprogrammed content on the big built-in screens.This includes Peloton, but also the newer models of NordicTrack treadmills, the Tonal strength device that has to be professional adhered to wall studs, and more.  NordicTrack owners have gone to war with the company over the fact that it shut down a hack that allowed owners to watch Netflix on the device's screen.

The Verge piece mostly focuses on the fact that the subscription-oriented devices are a hassle: Not only are the completely rigid about their users having subscriptions to the platform, but it’s hard to transfer ownership of the bikes. The relatively delicate built-in screens also make them, hilariously to me, difficult to even move around, let alone from one owner's house to a new owner’s house.

But there is more here on the issue of motivation, which is a constant challenge for people trying to make a habit of exercise. The question that the hand-in-glove operation of these Peloton-type gadgets with the infotainment platform that are their workout classes actually begs is, do they ever really deliver on the dream of a set-it-and-forget-it relationship with working out, a truly independent and autonomous approach to exercise, if they also encourage and require the subscription?

Peloton and its competitors clearly want to cultivate a motivational ecosystem where the Venn diagram of desire to exercise and the need for instructors like Cody Rigsby and Ally Love to be present are a circle. In theory, this would create eternally loyal subscribers. But if the charms of Cody Rigsby or Ally Love can wear thin, then motivation lives or dies by interest in the platform and its bubbly instructors.

Peloton does try to cultivate some intrinsic factors; obviously, the things that its instructors are yelling are not exclusively “Karen, I see you lagging behind Felicia on the leaderboards; are you going to take that from Felicia, Karen? This is why mommy never loved you, Karen!” It does have some scenic rides. But even Peloton owners agree that the point of Peloton is not exercise generally; it’s the classes specifically. That’s the whole value proposition. Otherwise, you could get an exercise bike and set up a TV in front of it to watch whatever you want for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Peloton IS competitive at its core, despite the talking out of both sides of its mouth about the leaderboard. That would mean that devices like this, devices where subscriptions are not only their main value proposition, but effectively lock in customers, could never really create a lasting, intrinsic experience. If everything I’m saying is true, that would mean Peloton is destined to have a constantly churning customer base, continuous new waves of people who are stirred to religious fervor by the latest energetic instructor, until that enthusiasm fades. At least, until enough people have been there, done that with a Peloton, and it runs out of new temporary converts. It also means that, for each individual, Peloton and its competitors copycats know they can’t really create a healthy attachment to and motivation for working out.

My point is, I guess, that I don’t think many folks have thought very deeply about how the telos of an at-home workout device, like all workout stuff, rests on the motivational atmosphere it cultivates. This would be fine for people buying the devices eyes open, not expecting them to Fix Them and their relationships to working out. I don’t think that’s most people, though; a device like this would only prolong dissatisfaction, and ultimately cause them to search for the next thing to fill that extrinsic hole, to distract them again from finding better, sustaining types of motivation.