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Why we keep falling for fitness fads

Peloton is the new Tae Bo is the new Thighmaster. Why do we approach fitness as consumers?

Dion Lee/Vox

When Tae Bo was all the rage in the late 1990s, Amanda Biers Melcher dove in head first. Living in LA, she says she’s tried “all of the workouts” — cardio barre, Bikram yoga when it was the (literally) hot thing, etc. But there was something special about the martial arts-inspired cardio fitness craze.

Biers Melcher was part of star instructor Billy Blanks’s “cult-like following” who worked out at a Sherman Oaks studio — now a Chipotle — alongside A-listers like Brooke Shields, Reese Witherspoon, and Magic Johnson, even appearing in one of the workout videos. The day she and a friend — both new moms — showed up for a class taping they’d been invited to, some of the excitement wore off. “We gave our names to the young woman with a clipboard and she said, ‘Oh, good, the alternative body types are here,’” she says, recalling that her friend burst out crying when they realized what was going on. “We were the fat girls in the video.”

Despite the embarrassing mishap, Biers Melcher stayed loyal to the workout ... until she didn’t. Looking back, she’s not quite sure why she stopped going — at some point, the fad just sort of faded. “A lot of people just moved on,” she says. “Everyone does what’s hot, then something else becomes hot, and everyone does that.”

Like millions of people, Biers Melcher gave up significant portions of her time, energy, and maybe a little bit of dignity for a workout that she did really enjoy. And then, also like millions of people, she was on to the next thing.

Billy Blanks is still around, and you can still find people doing Tae Bo. But it’s nowhere near as prevalent as it once was. That’s the thing about fitness trends: They constantly ebb and flow, often by design. Fitness is not inherently a consumer endeavor, but we tend to approach it as one. The health and wellness industry is more than happy to oblige.

“Fitness is experienced in this country mostly as a consumer product, so the rules of the markets apply to exercise almost more than the rules of science or health,” said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a fitness historian, professor at the New School, and author of the upcoming book Fit Nation. “There is this constant cycle of exercise trends mostly because there’s the need to keep creating new products and flashy experiences for people to spend money on.”

There’s always something that’s in vogue (like Peloton six months ago, and SoulCycle a little before that, and CrossFit a little before that), and there’s always something that’s going to replace it, just like in fashion, said Rina Raphael, a health and wellness writer and author of the upcoming book The Gospel of Wellness. “There’s no money in telling people to go for a walk, right?”

Fitness science changes, just not as fast as fads

There are shifts in fitness governed by breakthroughs in exercise science, but those shifts are generally slow, Mehlman Petrzela explained. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, cardio and aerobics were embraced as a type of exercise that everyone could do. Then in the 1990s, there was a shift to strength as good for general health, and away from worrying that strength training would make you “muscle bound.” In the last 20 years, there’s been more research on mindfulness and meditation. “You see a lot of exercise programs incorporating that broader wellness perspective,” she said.

The pace at which exercise science evolves is, to say the least, much slower than the pace at which different practices evolve. There’s a difference between how exercise trends are driven by science compared to the capitalistic drive to repackage and resell.

If the point of your workout is to get in cardiovascular activity, the kind of workout that you’re ultimately doing isn’t all that different, whether you’re running on a treadmill or dancing around in a studio. If you’re trying to do low-impact strength, barre and Pilates aren’t lightyears apart. “It’s not so much a different exercise modality that’s being sold to you as much as it is a different way of doing it or a different package,” Mehlman Petrzela said.

Workout companies and fitness studios are constantly competing for business with all sorts of gimmicks and tricks to draw people in. I am a bit of a sucker for these types of things and have tried my fair share of fad workouts. For a while, I tried Mark Fisher Fitness, a queer-friendly boutique studio in New York that calls its members “ninjas” and is adorned with unicorn memorabilia. I once did a dance fitness class where you put on headphones and rocked out to terrible European dance music in front of the New York Public Library, pretending the experience wasn’t completely humiliating. Another time, I did a spin bootcamp class that was so hard to follow I wanted to walk out, except another guy did first. I tried CrossFit for a week and almost immediately got hurt.

“In this very, very crowded marketplace, you need to sell a different experience or a different packaging,” Mehlman Petrzela said. Sometimes we’re trying the new thing because we’re being marketed to and not because it’s actually different or good or advisable. But it’s not inherently a bad thing, she noted — people like different things for different reasons.

People have all sorts of different motivations for quitting an exercise program: They get bored and look for something else, or find that certain workouts aren’t sustainable over a long period of time, physically or psychologically. I spoke to one man for this story who started running in those five-finger toe shoes for a while until he stepped on a rock, resulting in an injury it took him eight months to shake. I spoke to another woman who got into doing workout videos based on one of those mini trampolines but had to give it up after moving to an apartment building where her downstairs neighbor didn’t exactly appreciate her bouncing around every morning.

“There’s a whole bunch of group fitness trends that always cycle through. They fall out of favor for different reasons,” Raphael said.

Peloton is not dead, it’s just not going to be the big thing forever

So I guess this brings us to the Peloton of it all, arguably the last Big Hot Thing in exercise. The connected fitness company was well poised to take off at the outset of the pandemic, when many gyms shut down and people needed options to exercise from home. Consumers wanting a bike or treadmill faced months of back orders, and Peloton’s market cap surpassed $50 billion. But like so many fitness companies before it (not to mention spinning competitors Flywheel and SoulCycle), Peloton’s star has started to fade. It reported a $1.2 billion loss in its recent quarterly report, though it still has nearly 3 million subscribers.

“We have yet to see Peloton evaporate as a company, what we are seeing is it’s evaporating as a perceived mega-cap changing the world,” said Simeon Siegel, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets.

Peloton remains popular among many of its users, and it remains a nearly $4 billion company. Still, it is nowhere near the breakout story it was viewed as just a couple of years ago. As Vox has documented in the past, investors have begun to sour on the company, which has faced challenges in manufacturing and logistics. People just aren’t going to buy limitless amounts of treadmills and bikes. And like so many fitness trends before, there’s nothing particularly special about what the Peloton bikes and treadmills do in the first place.

“What Peloton did so well was less creating a truly innovative product and more telling a truly compelling story,” Siegel said. Essentially, Peloton’s success has been in its community much more than in its engineers. “The rise and fall of Peloton has been written by storytellers much more than it’s been written by numbers.”

Even when they fade from the limelight, most exercise trends truly never go away. “There are still people around doing almost all of these programs except the ones that are total scams that get disproven,” said Mehlman Petrzela. (See: those vibrating ab belts, though there are people probably using those, too.)

Maybe not many people are doing Tae Bo anymore, but they are doing classes that incorporate boxing. Heck, you can still find some Tae Bo classes on YouTube. Biers Melcher is well aware of the Peloton trend, but she insists that Tae Bo was different. “It lacks the kind of star power, I think, or communal star power of Tae Bo,” she says. “Every class was like a rock concert.”

The same can be said of Peloton. A recent ride with the singer Lizzo crashed the app, so many people tried to join. Some of its instructors, including Cody Rigsby and Robin Arzón, are celebrities in their own right, much like Billy Blanks was 20 years ago. SoulCycle, which lost some of its sheen during the pandemic, generated a cult-like following that had its followers clamoring for bikes at its ultra-exclusive studios. Some fitness programs have managed to become almost a religion for their adherents.

There’s no such thing as an exercise trend that lasts forever, except for maybe running and walking, but again, beyond selling you shoes and smartwatches, there’s not a whole lot of money to be made off of those. And really, who among us doesn’t have at least one piece of long-abandoned fitness equipment sitting somewhere in our garages or basements or closets?

There’s no harm in trying a new thing, even if it’s expensive (as long as you can afford it), and hey, maybe you might like it. Indeed, experts say that whatever the latest fashion in fitness is, what’s most important is finding the one that works for you, because that’s the one that has a chance of sticking, or at least being the most effective for now. As Raphael puts it, “Find something you really like.”

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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Have ideas for a future column or thoughts on this one? Email emily.stewart@vox.com.

Update, August 25, 10:35 am: This story has been updated to include Peloton’s quarterly report.