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How Peloton Used Psychology to Make Exercise Addictive

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Most people have a terrible time gathering the motivation to go to the gym. It’s because our fallible, human brains are hardwired to value immediate rewards like sleeping in, over long-term rewards like being fit. 

This mental model, called hyperbolic discounting, means people have to outwit their own psychology in order to get in a workout. But for Peloton owners, some of whom struggled for years to stick to a fitness routine, their workout has become an addiction.

Why? Because Peloton uses psychology to get us to ride. 

What is Peloton?

Peloton is a $2000 “connected fitness system” that combines a spin bike with a 22-inch tablet. Users can live-stream classes or choose from thousands of pre-recorded sessions.

A heart monitor tracks the user’s pulse, and the power generated from pedaling provides real-time feedback in the form of watts. Riders compete for spots on global leaderboards and can watch their ranking change during class. Peloton isn’t just a bike — it’s a social fitness game that uses psychological principles to hook users.

Peloton fans are described as zealots, cult members, or addicts. But why are riders so obsessive? The answer lies in the psychological and behavioral science principles behind its experience.

When Peloton was founded in 2012, it used the most addictive experiences on the planet as templates for its business. As Tom Cortese, one of the company's five co-founders put it

“We did talk a lot about Apple early on, and we talk about Netflix and Amazon. When you think about these game-changer companies who… focus on user experience, that is where we looked for inspiration.”

Just like Apple, Netflix, and Amazon, Peloton applies powerful behavioral science and psychology principles to get users to do two critical things: 

  1. Get riders on the bike 
  2. Get riders addicted to the experience 

How Peloton uses psychology to get users on the bike

The first step to creating an irresistible experience is getting users to try it. So how does Peloton use psychology to get users on their bikes?

  • The Sunk Cost Fallacy: There’s no getting around the price of a Peloton. It’s expensive. At around $2000 for the bike and equipment, plus another $40 a month for the app, it’s a big investment.

But why does this get users on the bike?

It’s down to a cognitive bias called the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

It states that people are more likely to start or continue an activity if they’ve made a significant investment. By charging a premium price, Peloton increases the chances people will jump on the bike.

  • Default Bias: Defaults are pre-set actions that take effect if a customer does nothing. Since defaults don’t require people to take any effort, they can be a simple but tool for driving choice. 

Because of the sleek design and size of the bike, users are more likely to put it somewhere they can see it. And when they see it, they’re more likely to use it.

  • The Halo Effect: This is a cognitive bias that describes the tendency for positive impressions of one thing to influence people’s opinions in another area. In this case, Peloton’s celebrity fans create a halo around their product.

Because celebrities like Hugh JackmanUsain BoltRichard BransonLeonardo DiCaprio, and Michael Phelps and have professed love for Peloton, they create a Halo Effect around the product itself. The risk of trying a Peloton is minimized because celebrities we admire have vouched for it. 

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How Peloton uses psychology to make exercise a habit

The Peloton user experience is what turns exercise into an enjoyable addiction. But what are the mechanics of creating this habit?

The answer lies in a model discovered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers. The so-called “Habit Loop” describes the basic structure behind every habit. 

Habit Loops consist of three parts, and all three parts must be present to create a habit. 

  1. The trigger (or cue)
  2. The routine
  3. The reward (or feedback) 

What are the psychological principles that “trigger” the Peloton habit?

Triggers, also called cues, are the reasons that people decide to get on their bikes and workout. Many people don’t consciously know that they have a cue, but the Peloton experience is set-up to create them. For example:

  • The Mere Exposure Effect: The Peloton’s sleek design and small size, as compared to a treadmill or Bowflex, means users can display it in prominent areas of their homes. That creates a perfect stage for the Mere Exposure effect to take hold. 

The Mere Exposure Effect states the more people see a product or brand, the more affinity they’ll have for it. And in Peloton’s case —  the more you see the bike parked in your living room or bedroom, the more likely you are to use it.

  • The Simplicity Effect: This principle states that people prefer experiences that are simple to perform, and available at the exact moment we want to do them. In his Behavior Change model, Stanford professor B.J. Fogg calls this the “ability” to perform a task. The simpler the task, the great the ability. 

Peloton’s always on-demand library of pre-recorded classes and their around-the-clock schedule of live classes means when someone’s habit loop is triggered, they can jump right into a class. This instant availability means people are more likely to create a habit with an app than at the gym. In fact, fitness app users are 38% more likely than gym users to stick with a program for two months or more.

How does psychology help create a “routine”?

  • Social Motivation: Also known as competition, this principle has been shown to increase physical effort during a workout, adherence to healthy habits, and even reaction times. 

Peloton’s community of more than 2 million users compete for spots on their class leaderboards. Rankings are determined by your effort in the class, and competition is fierce. User-generated content abounds about how to best position yourself on the board, and tips for how to “hack” your workout to get more points. 

Source: One Peloton
  • Streaks: Peloton streaks keep track of how many weeks in a row you’ve completed a workout. 

Each time you login to your Peloton to kick off a workout, you’re reminded of the length of your streak so far, and motivates you to keep exercising so you don’t break your streak. 

Duolingo - the language learning app - did some experimentation and found that including streak challenges increased their daily active users (DAU) by 3% and its in-app purchase revenue by 600%.

How Does Peloton Design Irresistible Rewards?

  • The Goal Gradient Effect: The Goal Gradient effect states that people are more motivated by how much is left to reach their target, rather than how far they have come. And as people get closer to a reward, they speed up their behavior to get to their goal faster.

Think of the Goal Gradient Effect as a virtual finish line. The closer customers get to winning, the more encouraged they become. This principle is the psychology behind why gamification elements like progress bars and badges. 

Peloton is a master of gamification — it abounds in their experience. Scores are calculated from calorie outputs and pedal speed. Users earn points, achievements, and can then rank higher on leaderboards. These gamification elements, combined with the serotonin boost of a workout, is what drives that “addicted” feeling users talk about. 

peloton psychology powered class dashboard

The Bottom Line

Peloton has done something nearly impossible. They’ve made exercise addictive for millions of people. Their incredible growth and famously engaged users are a testament to their top-notch experience. 

Ask yourself —how can we apply some of these psychology and behavioral science principles to our experience, to make it easier for customers to create a habit? 

About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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