My Gamer Brain Is Addicted to the Peloton Exercise Bike

At its heart, Peloton is a numerical fitness game, where I am constantly playing to make a number go up​.

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Nov 5 2018, 1:00pm

Image: Peloton

I hate exercise. I hate running. I like lifting, I guess, but I never seem to do it enough, and if your form is not that of Adonis, you will reliably have someone at the gym shamble over and tell you to hinge your hips or something. I can’t ride a bike due to never really being able to learn thanks to my dyspraxia, the thing that Daniel Radcliffe has, and also the fact I didn’t want to.

Exercise to me has always seemed like a foreign language or a musical instrument—something other people had learned to do, that I had tried, failed at, and decided was not part of my life. I’ve also had weight issues my entire life. I’ve been 300lbs, I’ve been 130lbs, I think about my weight at least 50 times a day. I tell myself I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m bloated, I look horrific, a million weird insults in an obsessive circle that I’m never quite fully distracted from.

It’s the same obsessiveness that got me into video games—quick, progressive achievement, things I can point at and say “hey, I did that.” It was a place where I could achieve things that weren’t connected to how I physically presented myself or moved in the world.

And somehow, an expensive bike with a computer attached to it has meshed with my obsessive gaming habits. The incremental jumps in power, the calories burned—all of it ties into that same weird place in my brain that says “this is good, I will do a lot of it,” to the point that I bike so much my legs are giant, sore tree trunks and my ass hurts. Maybe I’m taking a different perspective to most riders, but this is a game with numbers I can improve and my body happens to be along for the ride.

At its heart, Peloton is a numerical fitness game, where I am constantly playing to make a number go up

Peloton, a gaming-meets-spin class “connected fitness” device, is something I’ve been vaguely aware of since it launched in 2014. It’s a stationary spin bike (different from a regular bike in your position with regards to the handles, as well as a few other things) with a 22 inch, 1080p customized android tablet that streams classes either live or on demand. The classes range from 15 to 60 minutes, from low impact to brutal High Intensity Interval Training sessions, with music from the worst of the top 40 to weird 90s rock. You attach a heart-rate monitor around your sternum (way less weird than it sounds), clip your feet in (so you can ride hard without your feet flying off), choose a class, and ride. Your pedal speed (cadence) meshes with your resistance (adjusted by a knob at arm’s reach) to make output, which is your power at any given moment measured in watts.

I got into Peloton after talking to a friend who's been cycling a ton, and was the only person I’d ever talked to about fitness who didn’t say either A) you should run, it’s great, B) it’s all diet or C) have you tried lifting? His outlook was simple—give cycling a go, spin class is fun, and if you can’t ride a bike, maybe try one of those classes. My immediate response was obvious—I hate leaving the house and the gym sucks. He suggested Peloton “as it has a shit ton of numbers,” which I love.

I also should add that in my sorry, worthless existence I’ve purchased a bowflex, as well as those adjustable weights and resistance bands. I tried watching YouTube classes to do stuff, and I stuck with each of these things for about three days at most. Peloton is a $2,000 investment—a gaming laptop’s worth—but I was comfortable with selling it on Craigslist to someone else to mitigate the loss if it was a total failure.

I’m also intimately aware of my own shit—my compulsiveness, disorganization, and laziness. If I want to do anything it has to be in the same place, in the same area, in the same way, every time. It has to be an easy choice, one I can make almost without thinking. Anything repetitive that’s not easy to get to and activate will inevitably fall off. So I got the bike installed directly next to my desk for when I work from home, visible from my desk.

What’s interesting about Peloton is that, though it stinks of gamification —leaderboards, achievements, “scores” in the form of the total kilojoule output on a ride—it’s never seemed to be marketed as a device for gamers. . Commercials show attractive, sweaty people “giving it their all,” “being better” at life. Would any of these people even KNOW that Aeris was called Aerith in Final Fantasy VII’s japanese release? Would they even care?

Peloton has a lot of what I like about video games. It has very clear progression—like Spider-Man and Dead Cells—and I really enjoy the act of playing it, even though it's repetitive. I love Destiny 2, for example, which is a big piece of shit story-wise but is mechanically superb. If there’s a numerical evaluation of my growth (experience, power) and/or a series of things I can achieve in a list (like all the backpacks in Spider-Man), I’ll stick with a game. But one big consistency with everything I play is that 10 minutes can feel rewarding—you do something, you get somewhere, you progress.

At its heart, Peloton is a numerical fitness game, where I am constantly playing to make a number go up, so that I can get a big number on average at the end. The more I burn, the more I progress, the better I feel.

The instructors also lack a level of the condescension I’ve associated with all exercise—some are a little woo woo life coachy for me, but most of them are encouraging and technical, and clearly have a remit to not suggest any range of resistance or output is wrong, per se. You get on, you work, you sweat a shit ton and you smell like a big ass, and you are done. You follow numbers to produce numbers, you move your body to get there sure, but the numbers are your life.

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Image: Ed Zitron

Every bit of information I have from my ride is on Strava, a social network for fitness best known for leaky data. I stare at it, obsess (unhealthily) over how much I’ve burned, how strong I am over 20 minutes, or 30 minutes, or 45 minutes, and how I might be able to get stronger. Every Peloton class is a map to spawn into with a difficulty score and music that I’ll be made to work to. If I just have fun and follow along, that’s fine. I’ll still burn. If I want to push myself to do more, I can do that too. The guarantee of actual progression is addictive. I don’t have to worry that if I’m feeling tired and shitty for 30 minutes because those 30 minutes will even in a low impact, relaxed session burn 300-400 calories. In 30 days I’ve clocked 53 rides, gone 382 miles, burning 18,614 calories, spending over 20 hours on the bike. Compare this to when I forced myself to do maybe 20 hours in the gym in the space of a year.

If Peloton ever adds an experience and gear system, that may truly break me.

There are some good and bad parts to the whole “I treat a bike like I do when I’m addicted to a video game.” The good is obvious: I’m slimmer, stronger, healthier, I don’t have to really think or plan much for exercise to be part of my life as it’s essentially always there, always available. I’ve used raw numbers to somewhat keep down my own weight-based self-loathing, and I find myself happier, less plagued by my own neurotic nightmares. Where games have managed to push a particular internal button to make me feel better, perhaps Peloton has managed to make me either ignore the physical or just know it’s there, part of the game and that the mechanics are, indeed, not just on the screen.

The bad part is that my body both yearns and aches as part of the process. I am on the bike almost every day, I am piling on work and I hesitate to take rest days ever as I’m dedicated to the streak achievements (for days in a row and weeks in a row) and not feeling like a lazy asshole. If I don’t ride, I feel bad. I override without rest, and I’ll find myself almost forcing myself to take a day—which feels good, until I think that as a result of my inaction I won’t ever get back into it. I get the anxiety that I’m not getting stronger enough, that in comparison to friends on the bike I’m not strong enough, that maybe I’m not progressing fast enough, looking up strategies from cyclists to get stronger, getting pissed off when I see people may cheat and wondering if anyone who does better than me has messed with their calibration. There’re exploiters in every game, right?

If Peloton ever adds an experience and gear system, that may truly break me. I already grind—I did an hour and 45 minutes of exercise one day this week for a total of over 1700 calories. It’ll destroy me.

If there’s one major flaw in their marketing, and honestly, in all fitness marketing, it’s the focus on the aspirational, the lean physique and the rippling abs. If there’s one thing that will get me to stop, it’s if the numbers begin to stay the same, and I plateau. I have no idea. But for now, I will never log off, no matter how many people say I look dumb in cycling shorts.