How fitness became a pseudo-religion

The Flywheel website details its “Fly-osophy”, warning customers to “get ready to build your limitless body – in and out of the studio”.

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Most Sunday mornings I join two dozen devotees in a windowless room of a grey building in upper Manhattan that is located almost exactly at the midpoint between the Catholic Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer and the First Hungarian Reformed Church.

The room is dark except for a single spotlight illuminating our instructor, who greets us from a raised platform. “Are you ready to ride, Upper East Side?” he might ask, and then we whoop in unison. The music starts and we begin cycling, obeying his every demand. “You only have one chance. One opportunity. Make. It. Count,” he intones through his headset, and we hunch deeper over our handlebars and drive our legs like pistons to catch the beat.

As with many other New York gyms, Flywheel’s indoor cycling studios attract a fanatical following. The regulars (also known as the “Fly fam”) often arrive wearing the company’s sportswear emblazoned with mantras such as: “Never coast.” Or “Fit. Fierce. Fly.” They greet the instructors with high-fives and talk unironically of “crushing it” on their bikes. The Flywheel website has a section outlining its “Fly-osophy”. It warns potential customers to “get ready to build your limitless body – in and out of the studio”.

The sentence reads like an Instagram inspirational quote processed several times through Google Translate – what does a limitless body even look like? But it’s fairly cogent compared to some of the empty spiritualism and pseudo-politics espoused by other boutique gyms in the area.

Last summer, for example, I passed a poster outside the New York Health and Racquet Club that bore the slogan “resistance bands not travel bans”, as though cultivating long, lean muscles were a useful form of opposition to immigration hard-liners. Another said: “warming up not global warming”, which seemed to carry the outlandish suggestion that proper stretching can combat climate change.

The posters form part of a broader trend for fitness companies to portray working out as an inherently virtuous activity, like giving to charity or loving your neighbour.

Some firms, such as the high-end gym chain Equinox (“Commit to Something”) or Nike (“Just Do It”), encourage the idea that exercise is a demonstration of grit, the ability to make good on your intentions, to triumph.

Others configure working out as a means for spiritual renewal and self-realisation. The strapline for the ballet-inspired classes at Pure Barre is, “Strengthen your body. Empower your mind.” Barry’s Bootcamp describes its workouts as a “soul, body, brain revolution”. And then there’s SoulCycle, with its associations of karmic reincarnation and its imploration to, “Change your body. Find your SOUL.”

Luxury fitness brands are selling exercise as a spiritual salve and those who can, buy it. The US fitness market is worth $27.6bn and attendance at high-end gyms rose by 70 per cent between 2012 and 2015. The picture in the UK is similar too: one in seven people is a member of a gym and the private health and fitness club market is now estimated to be worth £3.1bn.

While cult gyms boom, religious affiliation is declining. According to public polling by the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who describe themselves as having no religion rose from 16 per cent in 2007 to 23 per cent in 2015. Boutique gyms offer a superficial facsimile of organised religion, a community reaffirmed through ritual and shared purpose – the promise of deeper meaning.

What’s surprising isn’t that exercise companies should try to market their products as a tool for personal enlightenment and empowerment – it’s that so many people, who have office jobs and no use for their highly trained biceps, should choose to believe them. Are we so hungry for a higher purpose that we’ll seek it out anywhere?

“Whatever moves you. Whatever makes you stronger. Use it,” the Flywheel instructor chants, and I double down. Because for the 60 minutes I spend in class each Sunday morning, I find it easy to forget that although I am moving so fast my entire body aches, I am going nowhere.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman