“She’s in a cult,” my husband told our friends over dinner recently, eyebrows slightly arched, kind of — but not really — joking. I’m not, of course, but I’m oddly comfortable with the accusation. The day before, I’d done The Double. After dropping my daughter off at school and mumbling something about an urgent meeting to one of the mothers hoping for a chat, I caught the subway to the West Village and didn’t exhale until I stepped into the reception area, where the inoffensive grapefruit aroma of a $42 Jonathan Adler candle swaddled me like a mollified newborn. I was in.
I wasn’t only in the studio, ready to maneuver my feet into the pedals of a stationary bike and furiously spin my legs for forty-five minutes while chanting to myself — between guttural cries — that I am worthy. No, I was in the in-crowd. The receptionist had greeted me by name. She knew my shoe size. Before the beat dropped, interrupting the buzz of inane caffeine-fueled babble about fillers, East Hampton and Lululemon combos, the lady on bike eight asked me about my trip to London. She cared. These were my people; this was my tribe. And better still, I was taking a $34 spin class for free. “You’ve got great energy,” the instructor had told me when I was last in her class. “Next time,” she’d offered conspiratorially, “come as my guest.”
Later that day, this time in a neighborhood closer to home, I did it again but on my own dime. Accompanied by cover versions of songs my parents played when I was growing up, but now recorded by artists uncomfortably close in age to my four-year-old, we dropped it on the left, then the right, then tapped it back. We sprinted and crunched and pressed and pushed, and did it all again ad — almost literally — nauseam. Up front on the podium, a sultry-eyed paragon of the perfect human — a hybrid between Michelangelo’s David and a Cirque du Soleil contortionist — moved with the grace of a seahorse and the force of a racehorse. He barely blinked.
“Great work tonight,” the instructor told me as I pushed open the door with a shaky arm and stepped out into the cool Manhattan evening, thinking mostly about pizza. “You glowed,” he said. “You’re an athlete.”
This, I suppose, is how they get you. Amid the mundanity of back-to-office work, parent-teacher conferences and doctor’s appointments, who doesn’t want to be an athlete? Who doesn’t want to glow?
In the 1970s, the publishing heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and purportedly brainwashed into joining what many have described as a cult. There are reports that she was locked in a dark room where, starved and exhausted, she was subjected to aggressive anti-capitalist diatribes. It didn’t take long for her to change her name and issue a statement in which she called her family pigs. Then she appeared on a security tape robbing a bank.
The idea that a fitness company might be a cult seems ridiculous. But, like Patty, I do get a thrill from spending time in a dark room where I get hungry and exhausted, and where I’m bombarded with rhetoric that’s certainly anti-something. And, honestly, while I don’t think my family members are porcine, the lure of free classes is pretty powerful. Would I rob a bank? Who knows?
According to the global health and fitness association IHRSA, membership in traditional gyms grew by a modest 15 percent between 2013 and 2017. Membership in boutique fitness studios, like high-end cycling studios, surged by 121 percent. And after a pandemic lull, there’s a fresh and ferocious appetite among the vaccinated and affluent for spending time inhaling and exhaling at close quarters. Boosted, no doubt, by the priceless promise of an exquisitely peachy butt, the value of the industry is, by some estimates, set to hit more than $26 billion in 2025 – a $4 billion increase on the pre-Covid peak.
Of course, it’s all built on irrationality. For a price tag of $34 (and on a journalist’s salary!), I shouldn’t even be willing to do an indoor cycling class if the instructor served me frosted glasses of Prosecco and promised me a foot massage afterwards. And yet I am willing. I know that, after two years of pandemic parenting, my glow probably resembles that of a low-wattage industrial strip light. But when an immaculately chiseled and flawlessly tanned instructor tells me that I’m an athlete — that I’m radiating energy — and offers to comp my next class, I’m not going to denounce them as a Branch Davidian.
I’ve told friends I’ve bumped into on the street that I’m “going for a run” or even “heading to yoga” or just “walking to get coffee.” It feels like a more socially acceptable, and certainly less pretentious, explanation for being clad in Lycra at 9 on a Saturday morning, and in the vicinity of a very expensive spin studio. But I hope the stigma will fade. One day, in the not-so-distant future, perhaps I’ll even wear my sweatshirt in public, the one emblazoned with the unmistakable logo of what’s probably the only company in the world capable of getting me to sing along to the breathy lyrics of that Harry Styles song about being “golden.” It was a gift. I promise.
As for the cynics, I’d urge you to just give it a try. Book yourself a bike in the back row, if you must. And if you can’t keep up, don’t worry. The instructor will still tell you you’re an athlete. He/she/they will still praise the brave warrior you are. Most therapists in New York charge a lot more for that.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2022 World edition.