Fitness is the New Religion

a woman riding a stationary bike shouting into a headset

I found myself one weekend morning gasping for air and desperately toweling off my sweaty face. I struggled to keep pace with my classmates, who were effortlessly locked into their stationary bikes, wearing large grins on their slightly less sweaty faces. The instructor singled me out, pointing to my reflection in the mirror while shouting, “DO NOT LET HIM DOWN!” After years of avoiding the fitness franchise juggernaut Soul Cycle, there I was, looking at my reflection, asking: What the hell is going on here? 

Until I got a free pass to try the class recently, I’ve maintained a healthy distance from SoulCycle due to it’s culty vibes and homogenous clientele. It reeks of cultural fitness elitism with a price tag of $32 for a 45 minute class. But putting all of that aside: on that weekend morning, I could not deny the physical and emotional sensations I was experiencing. Once I broke into a rhythm and felt comfortable on my bike, I wondered if I was having some sort of religious experience.

There you are: in a dark room, situated in perfect rows, squeezed tightly next to your fellow riders. On your own ride, yet guided and supported by a charismatic instructor who is situated atop a raised platform at the center of the room. Insightful or not, I felt like she was all-knowing. She is hooked up to a microphone which allows her bark instructions and offer advice, helping you to adjust your form or simply encourage you to keep going. You rock back and forth in your saddle, rolling with the music and the movements of everyone around you. The instructor slowly morphs into a sort of fitness cantor, her voice almost liturgical in it’s rhythm, timing, and tone. At the end of class, she effortlessly floats around the room holding two candles. She presents the candle to a young woman in the front row who seems to have captured her favor. The instructor chooses her and one other front row student to ceremoniously blow out the candle, symbolizing the end of class. I was exhausted and happy, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in the fitness version of a non-denominational church.

This was fitness, not a religious ceremony, yet I couldn’t help but wonder about the connections between modern fitness culture and the slow demise of organized religion among millennials. Are we getting our spiritual kicks from SoulCycle and boutique fitness classes like it? Are we worshipping at the altar of #FitnessGoals and unrealistic body image? Are we swapping mysticism for endorphin-ism? 

A 2017 article in The Atlantic that examined this issue described our shift away from the Church: 

As more Americans have moved away from organized religion (a 2015 Pew Center study found that 23 percent of the adult population identified as “religiously unaffiliated,” up from 16 percent in 2007) they have also moved toward new forms of community building, as well as new ways to seek mental clarity and spiritual experiences. The gym is a popular avenue for this kind of searching, in part because it mimics the form of traditional religious services.

Zan Romanoff, “The Consumerist Church of Fitness Classes,” The Atlantic

These fitness studios create a competitive advantage by carefully cultivating an environment that can produce a flow state for it’s customers. “Flow state” is a term made popular by the positive psychology movement; essentially, it describes a state of transcendence, intense focus, and a feeling of completely losing yourself in a particular activity. Four of the “triggers” for flow states include:

  • Intense concentration — High-end fitness boutiques have you dialed in, relentlessly focused on the task at hand: better yourself.
  • Goal clarity — There has to be a clear goal set at the outset. It allows our mind to focus on the present moment. 
  • Immediate feedback — This is when the Soul Cycle instructor screams “DON’T LET YOURSELF DOWN!”
  • Challenge to Skills Ratio — A situation has to be challenging but not impossible. If it’s too simple, we get bored. If it’s too hard, we quit. Enter stationary bikes. 

The fitness industry is almost certainly trying to emulate these conditions. It’s good for business, and it keeps people coming back for the type of dopamine hits that come from these “states.” These studios aren’t creating memberships, they are creating followings. 

One could argue easily that younger people, growing increasingly disillusioned by organized religion, could be seeking community, happiness, and ritual in fitness culture instead of the Church.  After all, who needs years of consistent and rigorous religious devotion when you can start to experience the Divine at your nearest SoulCycle in 45 minutes?

Do churches and religious gathering spaces need to run out and purchase a bunch of exercise bikes? Of course not. Organized religion still has a major advantage: consistency and balance. As the trends of market capitalism wax and wane, and as the interest and desires of people change over time, boutique fitness will inevitably have to develop a long term plan. The good (and sometimes bad) thing about religion is that it doesn’t change much. For many, it is always there, even on days when you don’t feel like your best self.

That is why it is ultimately important to approach fitness with a healthy desire, not a fanaticism. Fitness culture is a potentially false idol. The maximalist ethic often demonstrated in these classes is unsustainable. Romanoff, in his article for The Atlantic, describes the allure of the modern fitness industry: “Across platforms, a single promise resonates: Your body will get smaller, your world will get bigger, and your life will get better, but only through rigorous, sweaty work.”

These classes do a great job of reinforcing the go-getter, perfectionist mentality that already pervades American culture. Work harder, push yourself to exhaustion, and achieve success and prestige. According to Romanoff: “The Protestant work ethic and the hunger for consumption can combine to create an irresistible drive toward measurable accomplishment.” And when talking about measurable accomplishment in our current fitness-obsessed society, we are of course talking about body image and not simply the desire to build endurance. But what if we sought measured success in our ability to be kind? Or our ability to show compassion and empathy? To love?

Fitness in and of itself is not inherently bad. The desire to feel strong and healthy should be celebrated, if not promoted in society. But, like everything, fitness has it’s place among a wheel of other life facets: nutrition, spirituality, personal growth, family, relationships, and vocation. Approaching each facet with a healthy, balanced mindset could yield extremely positive long-term growth. Just as we have religious fanaticism, we must be careful to avoid fitness fanaticism.

The high-energy, motivational instructor of my SoulCycle had, coincidentally, defended her doctoral thesis the day before class. However smart, successful, and physically fit she may be, she doesn’t have the answers to my deepest problems — I do.

Photo by Erlend Ekseth on Unsplash

About Matthew LaBorde

Matthew is the coordinator of a vocational center at a homeless services non-profit in the Washington D.C area. For the last four years, he has worked with a wide range of poor and low-income individuals and families on the goal of finding meaningful employment. He is interested in topics like psychology, feminism, spirituality, and music. Matthew graduated with a communication arts degree from Spring Hill College, where he also served as the Editor of the student newspaper for two years. (Casa Maura Clarke, Los Angeles 2014-2015)