John Tolley and his wife, Monica, both lawyers in Sheepshead Bay, have been trying to unload their Peloton for months. While they liked the classes and the praise they got from instructors, they realize now that they only shelled out $2,000 for the bike and gear because their friends were hyping it on Facebook.
“We’re not easily influenced,” Tolley told The Post. “But all these people were telling us it was the greatest thing, that we were going to love it. It started to feel like a cult. We felt like buying into it was becoming this crazy thing where everyone was feeding off each other.”
According to Amanda Montell, such groupthink is no coincidence. The author of the new book “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism” writes that today’s trendy fitness studios are designed to attract followers with cult-like tactics. The pervasive use of “loaded mantras and monologues” create an experience “so stirring,” people can’t resist coming back and spreading the word.
“Exercisers driven only by numbers tend to quit within 12 months,” she writes. “It’s when elements of belonging, self-worth and empowerment enter the picture that members are moved to renew their fitness memberships year after year.”
It’s an effective marketing strategy that hooks customers with the promise of conditioning their psyches as well as their pecs. And brand-centric buzzwords become a special vocabulary that confers insider status, Montell said.
“Specialized jargon works to convert you, to love bomb you, to make you feel special,” she said. “At SoulCycle, for example, everyone knows that ‘Roosters’ take the 6 a.m. class, ‘Noon on Monday’ is when you sign up for classes and ‘tap-backs’ are a signature hip [pulse] you make on the bike.”
“While it’s really important to not be sensational and equate a workout with a cultish group like Jonestown, it’s equally important to be aware that the goal of fitness companies is to create solidarity, transcendence, elitism for insiders and a compelling experience that feels like more than just a workout,” Montell said.
Today’s focus on body and soul has coincided with a societal shift that’s replaced church with workouts. Take SoulCycle, for example, which just underwent a rebrand and even has a new tagline: Mind Altering Fitness. Like a religious space, SoulCycle’s candlelit studios feature inspirational mantras on the walls, prompting members to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.
But there are less-than-healthy downsides. Some popular instructors with large followings can have outsized influence on their students. Some SoulCycle teachers have come under fire for allegations of sexual harassment. (SoulCycle did not respond to The Post’s request for comment. There have also been similar highly publicized accusations against the leaders of Bikram Yoga and CrossFit).
Like cult leaders, charismatic instructors are deliberately tasked with serving multiple roles, Montell said.
“Each instructor has their own cultish language and they’re encouraged to blur the boundaries between workout instructor, lifestyle guru, therapist, pastor and best friend,” she said. “It can lead to a weird power dynamic.”
For Tatum Treffeisen, 27, a publicist who lives on the Upper East Side and takes three to four Peloton cycling classes a week, being drawn to certain instructors keeps her coming back, even if there’s a “culty vibe” to these classes.
“I follow five or six of my favorite instructors on Instagram,” she said. “I love these people and love watching their stories.”
Treffeisen said having a Peloton Slack channel at the office helps promote connectivity with her co-workers.
“We talk about instructors we love and I think it’s positive because people are inspiring each other to work out,” she said.
While Montell doesn’t think it’s dangerous to crave this connection, she worries about instructors holding inordinate power over their students.
“I don’t think it’s bad to surrender to the influence of a workout instructor, but when that person’s influence starts to bleed into your entire life and you base your decisions on what to wear or who to vote for based on who they are and what they think, that’s scary,” she said.
And, when a popular instructor has half a million followers, you can bet that he or she isn’t your friend — or is even aware of your presence in class.
“We think of cults as rural communes in the woods or in a mansion or bunker, but I think we need to be thinking about cultishness a little differently,” she said. “We’re all susceptible to a pernicious guru. It’s just that now they’re not just on compounds in the woods. They’re on your Instagram feed.”