Even before the pandemic, Peloton was the clear leader in connected, at-home workout equipment. So it was really no surprise that when gyms closed down and people found themselves stuck inside, Peloton's sales surged. Along with the success of Peloton, a growing industry of semi-affordable personal exercise machines is changing the way we work out. After all, why risk going to a gym when you could bring one into your living room?
This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED digital director Brian Barrett joins us to talk about Peloton and the future of gyms.
Read Lauren’s story about Peloton and the future of the home gym here.
Brian recommends the Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel, starting with the novel Wolf Hall. Lauren recommends I May Destroy You on HBO. Mike recommends Reverb’s YouTube channel.
Brian Barrett can be found on Twitter @brbarrett. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Michael Calore: Lauren.
Lauren Goode: Mike.
MC: Lauren, who is your favorite Peloton instructor?
LG: That's such a good question. It's probably a toss up between Robin, who is also the VP of fitness programming at Peloton, and Cody. Of course, everybody knows Cody. xoxo, Cody.
MC: All right. I don't know who Cody, is and I don't know what you're talking about, but I'm looking forward to learning all about it, because we're going to be talking about Peloton this week.
[Gadget Lab intro theme music]
MC: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED. I am joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior writer Lauren Goode.
LG: Mike, I think you need to lift your head up a little bit and just make sure your crown is on straight.
LG: Never mind. We'll get to this.
MC: OK. We are also joined this week by WIRED's digital director, Brian Barrett. Brian, welcome back to the show.
Brian Barrett: Mike, thanks for having me. I'm going to start in zone one, but after that we're gonna do about three minutes in zone four, then we'll take it back to recovery in zone two, and then we'll see where it goes from there.
LG: This is amazing.
MC: This is all just absolutely foreign territory to me. I just want you guys to know this. Today we are going to be talking about Peloton, who you probably know as the maker of those super fancy exercise bikes. The company also makes a treadmill and runs a popular platform for streaming workouts to your home on demand. This week, Peloton announced two new pieces of hardware, the Peloton Bike+, which has a swivel touchscreen, and a new, cheaper treadmill. Later in the show, we're going to talk about what the success of Peloton and other home workout systems means for the fate of gyms.
Gyms, you remember those: the things you used to go to and sweat inside. Lauren, wrote a story about the future of home gyms for WIRED.com earlier this week. So we'll talk about that later in the show, but first let's talk about what Peloton announced and why it matters. Now, Brian, I think you coming on the show means we are officially outing you to the world of WIRED as a Pelotonk, which is the demonym that I'm assigning to people who do Peloton. What do you have to say for yourself?
BB: Thank you, Mike. Pelotonk is a great name and I embrace it. And yeah, I have been a Peloton owner for about a year, and I love it—other than the fact that it's very expensive, but you get a lot out of it. And I want to start by saying, most people think about the bike, when you think about Peloton, that was their first product. They've got the new one coming out. They've also got the tread, but my gateway into it was actually the app. I was a runner primarily, and by "runner" I mean someone who went on long jogs once every six weeks. I don't mean an actual runner, but running is the workout that I did. And I wanted a little bit more structure to it, because I used to be a little bit more of a competitive athlete decades ago.
And Peloton had these great treadmill workouts, where instead of just setting a speed and a slight incline and just going steady for a 45 minutes to an hour, which is what I would normally do, there is a variation in tempo and in hills. It really felt like the workouts were structured to actually get results, in a way that I had not done for myself and never would have done for myself. And from there, I went on to get the bike because I worked from home. So it was easy just to have something there; it sort of took away the last excuse, that I could just hop on and then be done, instead of having also that 15-, 20-minute commute to the gym and back. And it's been great. And since then, I primarily do the bike now.
There are some outdoor workouts that I do. I've done some meditation at night to help me sleep, which is great. It knocks me out. And there are some other core classes that are app-based that I don't do as much. They've got strength, they've got yoga, they've got a boot camp, which sounds scary.
MC: Is that like the high-intensity interval training?
BB: I think it's when you rotate from strength training to the treadmill and then back. So anyway, Lauren mentioned at the top of the show that her two favorite instructors are Robin and Cody. Mine are probably Matt and Emma and Ben and … anyway, there's so many. I don't want to leave anyone out. But the point is, there are so many different types of workouts you can do, and different types of instructors, that there really is something for everyone.
My Peloton experience, I'm pretty sure is very different from Lauren's, because you can tailor it to not just the types of things you're doing, but the people who are instructing it, and the music that you're listening to. So apart from being a very expensive up-front purchase, it really is effective at what it does.
MC: I want to ask you both to talk about what the new hardware says about where Peloton is going, because something that we mentioned in the intro, the new bike has a screen that swivels. So you can use it as a television next to the bike. You can do stuff on the floor next to it. What does that add to the experience in addition to what it has now?
LG: Yeah, that's a really good question, Mike. And we should note, too, that recently Roku started supporting a Peloton App. So there are people who now cast their Peloton classes to a larger screen, and that maybe enables them to ride the bike, but then hop off and do other kinds of classes. Or even prior to the Roku app, people had figured out ways to cast their Peloton classes from the giant tablet, which is just essentially an Android tablet, to larger screens. So I think to me, what the new products say about Peloton is that they're more interested in getting you into the content. They want you paying that monthly subscription fee of $39 a month. And that's the subscription by the way, for people who have the expensive equipment. You can also just use the Peloton App on your iPhone or iPad or Android tablet for $12.99 a month.
But I think they just want your eyeballs glued to their content as much as possible. So by doing this swivel screen on the bike, you do a cycling class, but then you hop off and you do bootcamp because you're able to just whip the screen around, right? They've also introduced some auto-control features on the bike now, so you stay more focused on the screen and participating in the class. And then your resistance is controlled remotely. That's also the same strategy with their treadmill too, right? The first treadmill they came out with in 2018 was really expensive. It's worth $4,000. It's big, it's like a Woodway treadmill with that same slat belt. And now they're introducing a lower-cost treadmill, because the more important thing to them is that you actually just subscribe and keep your eyes glued to the screen.
BB: I agree. The swivel on the bike is pushing people to look at other classes. So you become not just a bike person, but you're also a strength person or a bootcamp person at the same time. I think the point of the treadmill applies there too, because they were able to cut the price of the bike that doesn't have the swivel screen. So it opens up your audience a little bit more on the lower end, if you don't care about a swivel screen, which I personally don't. I use the Roku app if I want to do a strength exercise or a meditation or something like that. So you're going both directions with it. I think it's a smart move. Still, very expensive, no matter how you cut it. But again, I have never had a piece of exercise equipment that I used as consistently as this over a full year so far.
MC: Oh, that's saying something.
LG: I completely agree though. For a long time, home exercise equipment was a bit of a joke, because people would buy it with such hopes and high expectations, and then ultimately it would become a coat hanger. It's in the basement. You haven't used it in a while. And I use this so consistently, and I will say that I think Peloton has inadvertently built a pretty healthy social network around this too. Although I don't know exactly what their social chops were in the beginning, but it's certainly evolved into that. Now I have friends who will message me and say, "Hey, I'm about to hop on the Peloton. Are you free? Do you want to do a class together?"
There are virtual high fives you can send each other. They were very ahead of the curve with regards to the pandemic Peloton, because you get virtual high fives. You don't even have to touch anybody. That's a fun thing to do. They really celebrate milestones, like your 100th ride, which I just did. And I'm pretty sure Brian did a long time ago. So they've built a community around it that makes you want to go to the equipment that you've spent so much money on and not just treat it like a coat rack.
BB: Lauren, as part of that social push, have you used the Peloton weirdest feature? Which is the fact that the bike has a webcam built into the tablet, and it's there so that you can actually, you can … You have?
LG: I have, I've used it two or three times. OK.
BB: Tell us about it.
LG: So fun fact about this: Back when I reported on Peloton in 2017 for my prior publication, the Verge, my review ended up turning into a feature because I talked to all these people who were so into Peloton, and it really underscored the pull of this product. And I found out through a source that Michelle Obama had a Peloton, and this source told me that she had a modified Peloton, because there were some security concerns about her having a webcam, right? A camera that essentially could capture the room the first lady is in or what she's doing. And one of the probably least important emails that the press office of Michelle Obama ever received, I had to write a note as part of my fact-checking process and just say, I have information that tells me this. Does the first lady have a Peloton? And does she have a modified version of the tablet, which was very funny. I think they politely declined to answer, but it does have a webcam. And I've tried it with friends a couple of times. So what happens is, once you and a friend are following each other, like you would on a social network, and you're working out together. When you go to the right side of the screen, where you can see what your friend is up to you and their output and all that, there's a button that says Video Chat. And so sometimes, after a friend and I do a virtual ride together, saying, "Hey, great job. Hey, how are things going?" And so I've tried it a couple of times, and I just did it last night with a friend who completed her 100th ride, or century ride.
But because yesterday happened to be one of the smokiest, most apocalyptic days in the history of the Bay Area, no exaggeration, there was no light where I was working out. And it was also very dark where she was, but then she turned the lights on inside. So it was the two of us, trying to have this video chat. I'm in the dark, and I can't really hear her. So we hung up, picked up the phone, and called each other and did FaceTime. So I'd love for there to be some integration with the Peloton tablet, where it's actually a good video chat app, but more likely, you're just going to chat with your friends on the phone, like you normally would. So Brian, I take it you've never used that.
BB: I put a big old piece of tape on it as soon as I could. No, thanks.
MC: So one last point before we move on, that I want to make sure that we make, if you are one of those people who went out and bought a piece of exercise equipment, like an exercise bike, or a treadmill, you can just take an iPad or set up a television with a Roku connected to it in front of that piece of exercise equipment and subscribe to Peloton's platform, and then do your exercises with the equipment that you already have. Right? So if you want to be part of this world and you're interested in it, you don't have to invest the thousands of dollars in a new exercise bike. You can just use the one that you already own.
BB: That's true. In the before times, you could just plop an iPad or a phone, even on gym equipment. And that would be fine. Now that's obviously not as feasible, but yeah, in general, I think there is a lot there, especially as they're expanding into outdoor runs and stuff that doesn't require equipment at all. That is worth looking into. Although I think Lauren has a better sense of once you get into that territory, there are a lot more competitive products that you should look at also, right? I think there are a lot of broad-based workout apps. So you definitely don't need the equipment.
LG: No. And you lose the metrics. I think that's the thing. I have a friend who's a runner, and she downloaded the Peloton App and bought a super-cheap used treadmill. And she's pretty happy with that experience, because she finds the Peloton coaching in her ear as she's running to be just as good for her. But for people who invest in the equipment, they really like that the equipment itself is connected to the app experience. All the things that data-driven people like to see as they're working out, that won't come from just the app alone. You don't have a leaderboard, you can't compete against friends. You won't see your output.
And then you know what? Also, Brian brought up a great point, which is space. I'm not getting the treadmill, because I can't afford it. And I don't have space, and I don't particularly want a treadmill. But I think just in general, this category of product for people is fairly inaccessible. It's expensive, and it takes up a lot of room, and we're seeing all kinds of new internet-connected products come to market that offer to be these all-in-one gym experiences. For a lot of people though, they're probably just going to miss paying $10 a month to go to Planet Fitness and lug around some weights.
MC: And we'll talk about that specific issue in the next segment. So let's take a break and we'll come back in a minute.
MC: Welcome back. Like just about every other industry, public gyms have taken a hit during the pandemic as people grapple with the ongoing need to socially distance. They've turned to home workout solutions like Peloton and others. In many cases, these alternatives are more cost-effective and convenient than going to the gym. So when gyms do finally start to open up again, are people ever going to want to go back to them? Now, Lauren, I want to ask you if everything suddenly went back to normal right now, would you go back to the gym?
LG: Oh, if things went actually back to normal. Yeah, I think I would, but I would probably go to a place that has a more specific approach, like a yoga studio, than a big-box gym. I do miss the gym though. I'm one of those people where I miss both the actual social aspect of the gym, where you see people you know, and you say hello, and you chitchat. And then that kind of ambient idea of other people are working out around you. And so you shouldn't really slack off, because there are other people around, or sometimes you look around and you see someone is doing something interesting with a Bosu ball or a cable that you've never seen before. And you get ideas. You're like, I should do that. I miss that. And I will say too, this is a strange thing to say, but I used to shower a lot at the gym.
When I was done, I would use the showers because it's part of the fee. And I'm like, why not? I probably bought actual shampoo at home maybe once every six months or something, because I was always just washing my hair at the gym. So I was like, this is great, less plastic waste. Anyway, it's small but big things that I miss about the gym. But I would not go back now in this scenario that we're in with Coved. And I don't even know if I would go back, if case numbers got really low, but we still didn't have a vaccine. I'd have to feel very confident about the experience.
BB: I walked through a YMCA recently on the way to an outdoor tennis court for my kids' tennis lessons. And there were people in there running on the treadmill and lifting weights, and it felt weird to see that. And I wanted to grab them by the workout equipment and say, are you mad? It's a pandemic, but I didn't do that.
LG: Were they wearing masks?
BB: No. Many of them were not. They do a temperature check when you go in the door, but otherwise it was pretty lawless. And then in terms of my own personal choices, I would go back to a gym for a treadmill, partly because I live in Alabama and it has been a hundred degrees outside every day for the last two months. And it's hard to run outside in that. But otherwise I got my own shampoo. All the shampoo I need. Right here.
LG: Well, now I do too.
MC: That's actually something that we're grappling with here in California, where Lauren and I are. The air quality is really bad, because of the wildfires. And it has been for the last two or three weeks. So in the Bay Area, it's difficult for us to run outside or basically do anything outside where you're respirating a lot. Then again, also you're running with a mask because it's the best thing to do for the public health. So you don't endanger yourself or the people around you for getting infected with the coronavirus. And it's really changed the dynamic out in the streets. But I will say that here, before the air quality got bad, it was very crowded out on the streets, in my neighborhood in particular, to the point where the city actually shut down a couple of streets to car traffic.
So they were pedestrian traffic only. And those sort of turned into the streets where you run. That's what it is between sun up and about 8 o'clock in the morning. It's just a person going by every 10 seconds, running down the street. So honestly, I don't miss the gym experience, and I don't miss the social experience, just because my neighborhood has recreated that. At least, as long as the air quality held up. And then when that went south because of the wildfires, it drove everybody back indoors.
BB: There're some things you just can't do at home though, right? I don't do a lot of weights, but if I were a weights person, I would be very frustrated right now. Right? Because A, they're sold out everywhere. If you wanted to get dumbbells. And B, if you want to do something beyond dumbbells, what are your choices? How do you do heavy squats and dead lifts right now? I guess you just don't. And all our favorite muscle people are wasting away, is what's going on.
LG: You buy really expensive, large boxes of cat litter, and you just start lifting weights with those.
BB: Yeah. Or go to Costco and find an aisle with something especially large, like big dog food bags, and just start moving pallets.
MC: I invested in a medicine ball many years ago, maybe six, seven years ago. And for most of the time that I've owned it, it just sits in my living room, and I stare at it, and I go, wow, that's a beautiful medicine ball. It's a handmade leather medicine ball, but lately I've been using it, because I've been stuck inside. And if I go outside, my throat closes up and my eyes burn. So it's actually been nice during wildfire season to have something that I can work out with. But it's just a medicine ball. There's only so many things you can do with it. And you can't do too many squats.
LG: I would encourage you to use whatever tools you have available to you, Mike. Medicine ball sounds great.
MC: Yes. And if the medicine ball is occupied, I just squat with my cats.
LG: One on each shoulder.
MC: Lauren, I want to go back to a point that you made earlier. You drew a distinction between big corporate gyms and smaller boutique workout experiences like yoga studios. I would like you to say more about that.
LG: Yeah. So I think that's something, first of all that, anecdotally, I feel a little bit more loyalty to a small local fitness studio, or even a small local gym chain, than I do necessarily to something that is a franchise that's big and is everywhere around the country. But it's something that I also heard when I spoke to one particular CEO of a fitness software company called FitGrid. The way I would describe FitGred, although I don't know if they would put it this way, is it's like a Salesforce for boutique fitness studios. They provide customer management software, but then they also provide some streaming services and streaming video integrations with Zoom and that sort of thing. So they've really tried to help more fitness studios get online. And particularly during this pandemic. The founder, Ntiendo Etuk, said something similar to me, which is that what they're seeing is that people would feel a little bit more loyalty, if things ever go back to "normal," towards a small boutique studio or a place where they feel like they have a relationship versus one of the bigger chains. And the bigger chains are suffering during the pandemic. I've been following some of the reports in The Wall Street Journal about this. 24 Hour Fitness worldwide, Gold's Gym—they filed for chapter 11 during this time. New York Sports Club, Lucille Roberts, they're not doing so well. Now there are exceptions to that. When you think about something like Planet Fitness, Planet Fitness is $10 a month. It's super cheap. They don't offer basketball courts or pools or fancy classes, right? They have a lot of weights and machines, and they tend to be much bigger spaces. And for some people, that $10 a month is a negligible cost.
So maybe in the long term, a chain like that might actually still be able to keep afloat, because people will feel like it's worth it to pay that much to have the chance to occasionally go into a gym and lift weights. Otherwise, I think that there could be this thing happening where you start to see much more verticalization in fitness, and much more focus on very specific products at home, your local yoga studio. Maybe that's able to offer some classes outdoors or offer a hybrid of in-person classes and streaming classes. I think people are going to be looking for something that—it sounds corny to say—but something that they feel a connection with, as opposed to the big-box gym that you're already resentful of because you have to pay such a high monthly cost.
MC: And I think because of the pandemic driving so many of us indoors this year, people's habits have changed, their expectation of what a workout is, has changed. A lot of people have made investments in things like a Peloton, a piece of workout equipment, something like the Mirror or Tonal, these systems that mount to your wall and offer you a guided experience over the internet. They've made these investments—either that, or they've just changed their habits so much that when it comes time to make the switch back to what they knew before, they may not be as ready to make that switch. Because they either like this new thing more, or they've bought this thing that they've installed in their home, and now they're invested in it, and this is what they should be using instead of going back to a facility.
BB: This is a bad analogy, but I'm going to go for it. I wonder like, well, in the same way that bookstores and even video stores that are still around have had to adapt to be more community centers than focused on things that people can get at home. Will gyms have to do that too? Obviously not right now, the type of equipment that can replace a gym, at least in part, is still again, very expensive and prohibitively so in most cases. But is there a point at which home exercise equipment and home classes and the streaming of home classes becomes so accessible that gyms have to rethink what they offer and what they are in order to stay viable? Do they become more like YMCAs, which are more well-rounded anyway, community-focused organizations that have a gym as a part of it? Probably not, but it's a question I'm asking. Mike, give me the answer.
MC: I think that if you take all of the racquetball courts and turn them into different rooms for like DJs, different styles of music, you could approximate like a midnight rave. You could have the fast techno in one room, the basketball court could be the big techno room. And then the small racquetball court could be the chill-out space. And you can have smart drinks and oxygen tanks and bean bag chairs everywhere. I would go to the gym for that.
LG: Wait, this is all virtual or in-person?
MC: No, this is in person. This is post-vaccine America. This is what the gym looks like. The gym of the future. It's a techno party at night and a techno party during the day too. Why not?
LG: I think people will be so excited to go to anything that resembles a party. Sign me up, sign me up for this future gym membership. I'm there.
MC: All right. Well that about does it for our discussion about working out at home, and we are going to take a break now. When we come back, we'll talk about our recommendations.
MC: OK, welcome back. Brian Barrett, this works just like baseball, where the guest bats first. So tell us, what is your recommendation?
BB: Thanks, Mike. I'm going to recommend Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy—three books about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror & the Light. They're great. The first two won the Booker Prize, which is a big prestigious literary award in England. The third one is shortlisted, I believe, or long listed. It's on a list for the Booker Prize this year. And it's a great journey. I just finished The Mirror & the Light. It only took me two months to get through, but it was worth it. So yeah, those books together.
MC: So it's like an ultramarathon reading experience.
BB: Yeah. Mike, we've gone from baseball to ultramarathon in a span of 90 seconds. I love it.
MC: I also understand bowling references. So I'll throw a couple of those in later.
BB: Can you spare us one?
MC: Oh no.
BB: Can you spare …
MC: Get your mind out of the gutter. Lauren, what is your recommendation?
LG: My recommendation has been recommended at least twice before on this show by our WIRED colleagues, but I started watching it last weekend. I'm on episode 10, and it is as good as everybody says. It's I May Destroy You, which is currently available on HBO or HBO Max or HBO Go or HBO, whichever HBO app you have, since we all tend to be a little bit confused by them. It's there. Michaela Coel stars in it. She codirects it, she's amazing, she's completely captivating. I do need to warn listeners that it includes subject matter related to sexual assault. So that could be something that is triggering and very upsetting for some people. That said, if you choose to watch it, or you feel like you can watch it, I think it's absolutely worth it. And I think it's brilliant. So I May Destroy You, for the third time on the Gadget Lab podcast, I'm recommending it.
LG: Mike, what's your recommendation?
MC: I would like to recommend a YouTube channel run by Reverb.com. So back in the day, when you wanted to buy a guitar or a bass or a set of drums or any type of musical equipment on the internet, you had to go to eBay or Craigslist. And then maybe about seven or eight years ago, this company came along called Reverb, and they started this marketplace for used and new, but mostly used, musical instruments. And it's really become the hub on the internet for people who want to buy and sell music gear. They have a YouTube channel, which basically tells you what to look for when you're buying a distortion pedal or what the difference is between a Mexican Stratocaster and an American Stratocaster. Sort of like buying advice for people who shop. But lately this summer, they've done a lot more video tutorials about making music at home.
So how to get new and cool sounds out of synthesizers, ways to mic up a guitar amp, so you can record music at home. And as a musician and as somebody who records music in my home, I have been infatuated by this YouTube channel. I've just gone back and watched the last three or four months worth of content in the last week or so. These videos are fun. They're informational. And they're the type of thing that, even if you're not a super crazy gear head, you would still benefit from and you still might enjoy watching because they're soothing and fun and just done in a real entertaining way. So that is my recommendation, that you subscribe to Reverb's YouTube channel.
LG: Thank you, Mike. I can always rely on you to offer music recommendations, since I just really am clueless when it comes to that. So thanks for that.
MC: Sure. DIY music.
LG: DIY music.
MC: All right. Well that is our show for this week. Thanks again to Brian Barrett for joining us.
BB: Thank you for having me.
MC: As always, thank you all for listening. If you have any feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman. Goodbye, and we'll be back next week.
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