You know someone who tells everyone who will listen about the “life-changing” new workout he or she is doing that, chances are, costs way more than even the schmanciest gym membership, right? Of course you do. Because everyone does.
I understand the appeal of group fitness classes. I really do. I have a cache of precious, expensive Pop Physique and “Terrible” Terry Norris boxing sessions that I have to sign up for in advance. Cancel at the last minute, and I pay for them anyway, so I'm less likely to be lazy and flake out on a scheduled class. But I find cultlike devotion to pretty much anything annoying. And I think that when workouts become “lifestyle brands,” quality control goes out the window: instructor certification becomes more motivated by profits, and classes can become so enormous that teachers couldn't possibly correct students' bad form, which results in crappy, unhelpful workouts or even injuries for some participants.
I don't get why some people can't just dance, or can't just work out, they have to “belong” to a “community.” For a lot of money. For a lot of money for not a lot of instruction, sometimes, and in some cases, a lot of money that helps fund shitty companies that actually damage people's health, not improve it.
But aside from the corporate shill aspect of fitness fanaticism, some of these programs are just fucking creepy. And the more I probed into the most popular ones, the creepier it got.
By now you might be thinking, “What's wrong with you, Virginia? What do you have against fun?” Here's what I have against fun, in descending order of creepiness:
I think it'd be difficult to remain unmotivated after investing $34 to $60 in one 45-minute indoor cycling class, but hey, I'm just a poor person and Lady Gaga loves SoulCycle, so what do I know? Probably the most expensive group fitness class in existence and available in New York City, the Hamptons and Greenwich, to name just a few tony locations, SoulCycle punctuates its candlelit cardio atmosphere with shouted compliments such as, “You're all sexy!” according to a story in Vanity Fair. A 20-class series of these sessions, called a “spiritual journey” by the New York Post, saves you a whopping $6 on the price of each class. And they expire in nine months. And you have to rent the little cycle shoes for $3 a class, too. Women's Wear Daily recently reported that SoulCycle branded workout attire – merchandise that naturally includes animal-print pants, luggage tags and mint tins – sells out in two to three days, without any advertising. Posted “Soul Etiquette” requests that you refrain from cell phone use and not smell bad during class, lest you distract other SoulCyclers. Premium class packages allow SoulCyclers to request front-row bikes weeks in advance.
If you have the money to burn on SoulCycle and it's making your abs and thighs awesomely tight, why should anyone say it's weird? Because it costs a million fucking dollars. To work out in a dark, sweaty room with a bunch of strangers and hover over a stationary bike while someone who doesn't know you bleats that you are sexy. Creepy factor: Middle to high.
2. Tough Mudder
If you're finding the level of testosterone in the weight section of your gym lacking and want to up the bro factor in your workouts, sign up for Tough Mudder, a franchise fitness event for men and women eager to prove they're not pussies by completing a course more evocative of a hazing ritual than a workout. For $95 to $180, participants can subject themselves to torture on an 12-mile obstacle course meant for British Special Forces training, all for an orange headband, a T-shirt, a beer and “bragging rights.” It's similar to other muddy obstacle races such as Warrior Dash, and begins with a group chant of Tough Mudder tenets, arms raised in a vaguely “Heil, Hitler” manner. Participants are warned in advance that they must find the humor in obstacle challenges with hilarious names such as “Just the Tip,” “Hold Your Wood” and “Dong Dangler.”
Although the Tough Mudder founders insist that the event is not a race but about “having fun,” you'll work like a mudderfucker for your headband and bottle of Dos Equis in the typically three-to-four-hour obstacle course fighting your way through the “Arctic Enema,” “Berlin Walls” and “Cage Crawl,” which looks worse than it sounds, judging from the picture on the Tough Mudder site of a woman lying on her back in mud with a chain-link fence inches over her face. Chillingly described as “Iron Man meets Burning Man,” this event also offers the opportunity of a horizontal crawl through nightmare-inducing lengths of pipe. According to their promo copy, “Triathlons, marathons and other lame-ass mud runs are more stressful than fun. Not Tough Mudder. As hardcore as our courses are, we meet you at the finish line with a beer, a laugh, and a rockin’ live band.” Most events, according to the website, also provide tattoo artists to “ink” you a Tough Mudder brand tattoo for $70.
Tough Mudder, enthusiasts say, is for people who don't take themselves too seriously. And well, so what, you might ask. No one's ever died from doing a tough physical endurance race like this, right? Actually, people have died. Despite the company's claims that they “hold safety at a premium and do not create any obstacles or courses that will truly put you in danger of serious injury or death,” a West Virginia man who drowned in April was the fourth Tough Mudder death since 2011, according to a story in The Baltimore Sun. The article, which ran in May 2013, also reported that lawsuits have been filed by participants who have suffered heart attacks, paralysis and hypothermia in the event. Serious as a heart attack, one might say. Creepy factor: High.
Predicated on the earth-shattering premise that dancing is fun, Zumba classes are loosely based on Latin dance moves combined with “international zest” and are available in 140,000 studios in 150 countries. Called “the world's leading branded fitness program,” 12 million Zumba DVDs have sold to the fitness program's cultlike following. Also trademarked are Zumba Kids and Zumba Kids Junior classes, and the company produces a Zumba magazine called “Z Life.” Zumba Dance is a popular app on iPad, and the company plans to release Zumba for smartphones as well.
“I've always thought that when something is perfect, there are no words to describe it,” a voiceover on the company's promo video actually says. “And that's how I feel about Zumba Fitness.” Against a backdrop of invigorating music and ear-to-ear Zumba-induced smiles, another zealot adds, “It's kind of like trying to describe when you're in love...there's no one word or no sentence to ever completely explain how you feel.”
This ethereal workout was borne from a heartwarming family story, according to a radio interview Zumba CEO and founder Alberto Perlman did with “The Business Makers” in 2010:
I was having dinner at my mom's house, and she kept talking about an aerobics class, which she called Rumba, and it was called Rumba at the time, and her instructor's name was Beto, and he was a single instructor with a name of a class called Rumba, but she kept saying that it was different, that it was magical, that it was amazing, and that she had been taking the class for like 10 years.
And I had never listened to her, but at this point, I was looking for something new. And I said, mom, maybe I should meet this guy because maybe he could be the next Taibo [sic].
In addition to profits from the sale of 12 million DVDs, the founders of this workout craze inspired by a small Colombian fitness class also make a killing on branded merchandise. Zumba is also cashing in on the action of Breast Cancer Season, partnering with the ultra-creepy Susan G. Komen Foundation to fund the Zumba Global Research Grant for Breast Cancer Prevention. Worldwide “Zumbathons” already “raise awareness” for dozens of causes big and small, but the Komen-partnered “Party in Pink” campaign donates 30 percent of sales (over three-month periods for the next three years) of its “limited-edition” “Groove for the Cure” cargo pants, tank tops and rubber bracelets toward investigating the use of lingans in flaxseed in breast cancer prevention, a link first studied in the late '90s.
What's creepy about that? In a nutshell: The Susan G. Komen Foundation has financial interests in companies that produce drugs, food and alcohol with strongly suspected links to cancer and spends a reported $1 million annually suing other charities that use ribbons with pinkish hues and the phrase “for the cure” in their fundraising activities. (Put this in your Netflix queue in October if you're unaware of this) And Zumba is partnering with them. Creepy factor: Ultra.