During the first two years of the pandemic, Kristi Falzon, who lives in Chicago, used her Peloton every day. “It was a godsend,” she said. She could exercise in her spare bedroom between Zoom meetings without worrying about other people’s germs.
But lately the spark has gone out. Last month, Ms. Falzon, 39, listed the stationary bike on Facebook Marketplace. She paid $2,650 for her Peloton and accessories, but after a month of waiting for buyers, she begrudgingly sold it for $1,100.
“I wanted to sell it before everybody else did,” she said. “The more we get back to civilization, the more people will start selling them.”
Peloton, once the darling of pandemic home workouts, has had a rough few months, losing $439 million and laying off 20 percent of its work force as exercisers return to the gym. Planet Fitness added 1.7 million new members in 2021 and opened 132 new locations, the company said. At Crunch, membership in the United States has “increased 34 percent since pre-Covid levels,” said Jim Rowley, the chief executive of Crunch Worldwide.
The biggest increase, Mr. Rowley said, has come in just the last month, as people return to group classes. At Kondition Fitness in Boulder, Colo., which offers spin and barre, the owner Emma Straight said business is up 30 percent since its lowest point in 2020.Whether it’s for camaraderie, motivation or just a change of scenery, some Peloton enthusiasts are starting to rethink it as their “ride or die” workout.
People miss being around other people.
A group workout class “provides three things that are really needed right now: connection, hope and empowerment,” said Kelly McGonigal, the author of “The Joy of Movement” and a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University.
When you move with other people, particularly in synchrony, “you feel a sense of belonging and connectedness,” Dr. McGonigal said. Some studies suggest that synchronous movement, like dancing, makes people feel more bonded than solo activity and that group fitness programs have more mental health benefits than individual ones. In a small 2013 study, synchronized rowers displayed a higher pain tolerance after the workout than those who rowed alone.
Since Oregon lifted its mask mandate in March, Danielle Massari, who owns the StarCycle spin studio in Portland, has seen “a steady 10 percent increase in riders every week,” many of whom told her they left a pandemic Peloton at home. It’s not just that you can work harder without a mask, said Dr. McGonigal; it’s also that we often take our cues from the emotions of those around us. It’s simply easier to bond with someone when you can see their face.
Molly Taylor, 31, started using her Peloton less as soon as the OrangeTheory Fitness near her Los Angeles home reopened. One of the biggest draws is the socialization, said Ms. Taylor, who is single and works from home. “Some days, it’s the only way I interact with other humans.”
Easy access also means easy interruption.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Paige Van Otten, a stay-at-home mother in Seattle, loved that she could sneak in a quick Peloton workout while her toddler napped.
“You think, ‘Oh, it’s so convenient, I can do it anytime,’” she said. “But really, I could only do it at nap time. I started to resent how limiting that felt.”
Last fall, when her daughter started preschool and her gym reopened, Ms. Van Otten, 34, went back to her gym and started a weight lifting program there. “I like it a lot better,” she said. “I feel like a true adult and not just a parent.”
Exercising outside your home can give you “a separate space, free of other responsibilities, where you spend time doing something that’s just for you,” said Pirkko Markula, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who studies the fitness industry.
The more you limit the likelihood of interruption, the more productive your workout will be, said Elizabeth Leonard, who teaches at the Barre3 studio in Brookline, Mass. When she’s tried to exercise in her living room, “I’ll get distracted, like, ‘wow, I can see underneath the couch, I need to vacuum,’” she said. “If you’re half thinking about something else, it’s much harder to focus.”
There’s no replacement for a real-life instructor.
Ms. Taylor said that she sometimes slacks off on her Peloton because “there’s nobody watching me do it.” She works harder in an OrangeTheory class because the coach will notice her phoning it in.
Despite the cultlike followings some Peloton instructors draw, they’re limited in the personal encouragement they can offer; the closest thing is a brief on-screen “shout-out” to a rider celebrating a milestone.
At an in-person spin class, a participant is more than just a user name, Ms. Massari said. “When we say, ‘go Kim! You’re looking great!’ we know exactly who Kim is, we know she’s getting married in three weeks.”
In Ms. Leonard’s barre classes, participants can wear an orange “consent band” on their wrist to indicate that they’re comfortable with her touching them to correct their form.
About 90 percent of people now wear them, she said, a “huge increase” from when the studio reopened last summer. “It’s like people are saying, ‘yes, get in my personal space, I want to feel connected, I want to feel supported.’”
Gamification can be wearying.
Steve Perkins, 71, bought a Peloton in December 2020 and rode it every day for six months. “I’m a stats guy,” he said. “I didn’t realize how hooked I’d get on the leaderboard.”
Some research shows that adding gamification to exercise can be hugely motivating. In a 2017 study, 200 adults tracked their steps for 12 weeks, with half the group competing against family members as they earned points and progressed through levels. Those playing the game nearly tripled the number of steps they normally took.
For some people, the competition — and the numerical proof of progress — may have been extra appealing during the pandemic, which has brought so much uncertainty, Dr. Markula said. “If you can put a number on it, maybe you can feel like you’ve achieved something.”
But it can be a relief to put that aside too. Mr. Perkins’s attempts to dominate the leaderboard came to a head when he “pushed it too hard” and injured himself. A few weeks ago, he decided to sell the bike and focus on how exercising made him feel, rather than how many competitors he could crush.
“I’m going back to walks with my dogs,” he said. “Good 71-year-old type stuff.”
But Peloton still offers some advantages.
Shibani Faehnle, 41, who lives in Cleveland, said she likes Peloton’s convenience, variety of programming and the fact that she can choose from a more diverse range of instructors than are available at the gyms in her neighborhood. Ms. Faehnle, who is Indian American, said, “I wish fitness studios would pay more attention to creating a diverse experience, because that would actually entice me back.”
Brienne Rosman, who lives in Dallas, said she’s found a vibrant community online in unofficial Peloton groups like the popular #hardCORE on the Floor, which has grown to 350,000 members. “I have no interest in going back to a gym,” said Ms. Rosman, 42. In February, she bought a Peloton treadmill too.
Still, until Peloton reopens its New York and London studios this summer, some devotees are choosing to return to in-person exercise elsewhere, and are finding it surprisingly emotional.
“We’ve seen some tears of joy,” Ms. Straight said. “A lot of people have told us they didn’t even realize what they were missing until they came back.”
Holly Burns is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area and a regular contributor to The New York Times.