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phys ed

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

When Future Paul looks back upon the COVID-19 pandemic, two things will come to mind. The first: an image of a discarded face mask crumpled and matted in a streetside gutter, a stark emblem of what some say is an environmental disaster that we’ll be dealing with for generations to come. The second? Peloton.

I’m willing to wager that before 2020 most people hadn’t even heard the word “peloton.” Today, it’s both a common noun (the main body of riders in a bicycle race) and a proper noun (the fancy exercise bike), as well as a verb (“I’m going to Peloton after work”). In only a few years, Peloton has achieved near-universal brand recognition.

People often ask me if they should buy a Peloton. My answer to this question is the same as my answer to almost every fitness question: It depends on your fitness goals.

The Peloton, for all its ubiquity, isn’t for everyone – and at upwards of $2,800, plus monthly $49 subscriptions fee and accessories, it’s not exactly a low-stakes investment. Bikes are great for building cardio capacity, but they’re not so great at building real strength or noticeable muscle mass. Yes, your legs will burn after a class, but what about those upper body muscles? For $30 you can buy tiny Peloton “bike weights,” which I’m guessing are supposed to address this imbalance, though I think we all know, deep down inside, that nothing much has ever been accomplished with a three-pound dumbbell.

“Functional training” is a divisive term in the fitness industry. Some say it’s marketing mumbo jumbo. Others, myself included, view it as a valuable way to categorize exercises and narrow down training parameters. To me, functional training means getting good at doing the stuff you do (or may have to do) during the course of your everyday life. The classic example is the squat – sitting down as deep as you can, then standing up tall, a movement people (hopefully) perform multiple times a day. Squatting trains the hips, the back, the core,and, yes, the entire leg. There are all sorts of squatting variations, some involving one leg, some two; some requiring heavy barbells, some requiring nothing but your own body.

Unless you make your living as a bike courier, there’s nothing functional about a spin class. As a society, we spend more and more time sitting and staring at screens. It makes no sense (or maybe it makes perfect sense?) that this is how we’re now choosing to spend the sliver of time we devote to physical fitness. Hunched backs, slouched shoulders, extended necks – none of these maladies of 21st century life get addressed when you’re clipped into your bike.

As a personal trainer, I think the most interesting (maybe even the most beneficial) aspect of the Peloton happens once you step off the bike. Members have access to a huge collection of fitness classes that have nothing to do with cycling, from yoga and Pilates, to strength training and stretching. You can even access this library without purchasing any Peloton hardware; for $16.99 per month (or, around the price of a single spin class at a boutique gym), the Digital Membership gives users full access to this library, as well as all of the cycling classes. This is a great option for people who already have spin bikes, although you do lose out on access to Peloton’s interactive element and their performance-tracking metrics.

Having access to these fitness classes addresses most of my issues with Peloton as a stand-alone training tool, but of course classes are only valuable if you actually use them. I reached out to Peloton to find out what percentage of their subscribers also take part in non-cycling classes. They weren’t able to share that information, but after reading their quarterly shareholder letter, I did learn that of their 5.4 million members, approximately 891,000 are Digital Membership users, and collectively this entire group has participated in 149.5 million total workouts so far this fiscal year.

In his 1973 sci-fi classic, Time Enough for Love, author Robert Heinlein outlines what he sees as the basic skills of competency everyone should aspire to. The list is as long as it is esoteric (“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship…”), and it concludes with a single clause that summarizes my fitness philosophy as clearly as any statement I’ve come across: “specialization is for insects.” This body of ours is capable of performing a dizzying array of fantastic feats. And yet a whole lot of people seem to be content with doing the same style of workout day after day, just as long as there’s something to distract them from the tedium of the monotony.

So, should you buy a Peloton? I can’t answer that for you. Ultimately, what matters most is that you find an outlet for physical activity that brings joy to your life. If that means forking over the cash for the current gadget du jour, then by all means. Just do me a favour: Get off the bike every now and then, and explore the fitness options that exist outside of Peloton’s curated virtual world.

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