Fitness Cliques and The Kool-Aid Test

Have you been initiated?


There was a time not long ago, during the cold and prolonged months of a winter past, when I was very committed to Soul Cycle. Every Monday at noon, I would faithfully log into my account, purchase a bundle of classes (I also ate peanuts for lunch) and effectively “book my soul.” I’d waddle through the Manhattan Slushie — a frozen blend of ice, grime, and the daily commuter footprints — in order to make it to Sting or Madison or Kym’s class. I wasn’t picky about my instructors, I was just happy to have made it into the clique.

In class, I would bounce! bounce! bounce! to the likes of Kylie Minogue or a good Nirvana remix. I splurged on a pair of neon pink leggings (mind you, I was a WARRIOR). I drank green juice after class and doused myself in the lemon scented body wash that the pristine bathrooms displayed.

I even dared to go full nude in the locker room. After all, this was family.

At my peak, I was riding up to five times a week. My debit card, however, was drowning — likely eating its own flesh to survive. I couldn’t recall the last time I left my apartment in something other than sneaker wedges and neon pink leggings, and I’d started to organize social plans around whatever class had bumped me in from the wait list.

I wore headbands.

And thus began my indoctrination into the sticky world of Fitness Cliques:  the near-impenetrable groups of workout devotees, divided into crews by their preferred trend, cult-like classes.

Initiation usually occurs in 5 phases I like to call, “The Kool-Aid Test.”

Phase 1: You’re Offered a Drink at a Party

You’re idling by the water cooler — making small talk with nobody — when your co-worker Nancy walks up. She patiently waits for you to step aside so she can refill her Hydro Flast insulated stainless steel water bottle for the fourth time this morning: Ugh, I just can’t get enough of this H2O! I’m super dehydrated from the underwater spin class I did this morning. Hey! You should come with. Tomorrow? Ricky is teaching! Madonna themed! I’m telling you Esther, my ass has never felt so good. “

Phase 2: You Take a Sip…

…Then chase it with another gulp of water. The chipper lady at the other end of the phone tells you that your first class is, surprise, FREE! Your dad always told you there was no such thing, but homegirl at SpinMermaid doesn’t seem like the type of gal who’d lie to you. You get through your first class despite wishing the earth would open up and swallow you whole at every sprint. You feel good. The next day, your newfound gluts are sore enough to convince you that you need a well deserved, month-long sabbatical from fitness.

Phase 3: Then You Knock Back a Few too Many

There will be a week — it will creep up on you — that you’ll spend blackout drunk on fitness. A bender. It’ll start on a Sunday, when your actual hangover is so bad, you feel like the only alternative to death is exercise. You’ll go for a run. You’ll attend a spin class. You’ll use the yoga credit that your old college roommate gifted you for your birthday two years prior. Now flash forward to Friday and you’ve worked out five times. Your mom tells you your calves look good. You consider training for the NYC marathon. Go home Esther, you’re drunk.

Phase 4: Your Tolerance Increases

You level off. You’re now exercising, say, three to five times a week. The girls at SpinMermaid know you by your fitness name, Number 5, which is what Ricky calls you when you go too easy on the resistance. You begin canceling happy hour plans with your friends to attend 6:30 classes. You lie and tell them you have to work late but not to worry, you’ll meet them at dinner. And by the way, can we go macrobiotic?

Phase 5: You Offer Someone a Drink at a Party

Essentially, you have become that dude from the Kool-Aid commercial. You are Mr. Kool-Aid. You get so excited about the prospect of recruiting new members to your fitness clique, you could jump through brick walls. You can’t resist the urge to proposition your unassuming coworkers at the water cooler. You tout the benefits of a Paleo diet and have grown a strange attraction to the caveman from the Geico commercial. You’re drunker than Hemingway in Havana, but way, way more fit.

I can vouch for the Kool-Aid test because I’ve been there. One minute H20 Nancy’s hunting you like the heedless antelope in the Savanna that you are and the next, you’ve turned into H20 Nancy.

Except you don’t eat red meat.

But let’s face it: come winter, fitness devotees will retire to their hibernation dens and the only thing to get silly drunk over will be gingerbread lattes. Nothing sobers up Mr. Kool-Aid like an oncoming polar vortex — until spring, that is, when crop-tops make their imminent return.

Feature image originally shot by Lady Tarin for Gioia, inside images originally shot by James Macari for Grazia France 

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  • This sounds so familiar!

  • Becca

    You perfectly sum up the clique effect of soul cycle and most fitness trends. I love it!!

  • Sylvia

    This coming from a woman who found TWINSanity to be nothing more than her barry bootcamp warm up! Are you retiring those punk leggings cuz your butt sure looks perky in them

    • Esther Levy

      Ugh thanks mom. In the words of Will i. Am. “I got it from my mama”

  • Go, Esther, go! Impeccable and engaging writing up top. I’d cycle with you any day, only I think you’d kick my ass.

    • Esther Levy

      Oh I totally would, but we would listen to Joni Mitchell the whole time.

    • nilanthan


  • lavieenliz

    lol you go esther!

    giveaway on my blog!

  • kim

    LOL so true!! Guilty myself of drinking the soul cycle Kool-Aid 🙂

  • andrea raymer

    I would totally join the clique of fitness trends if I could afford it. Money is the only thing stopping me from going in to the soul cycle I walk past every day.

    • One of the many reasons why running is the best thing ever. You pay for the shoes, you wear t-shirts you won in odd raffles, the quirky, patterned diaper shorts are $5 at Thrift stores, and you just step out your door and cruisseeeeee.

      • andrea raymer

        No way. Running is The Worst. I hate it so much.

  • Jamie Leland

    I’ve been dancing around the climbing cult for years — only when you’re drinking the climbing Kool-Aid, it’s actually buckets of craft beer.

  • Shelby Soke

    I’ve done this with spin, hot yoga and barre. I can’t seem to stick to one thing, aside from running, for very long.

    The most cult-like experience was hot yoga. For a brief time, that studio was everything to me. It had to stop when I started using “namaste” in conversations and wasn’t being ironic.

  • “come winter, fitness devotees will retire to their hibernation dens” YIKES. this is me. i wish i could stay more motivated during the winter! blahhhhh.
    really great writing esther!

  • annemaris

    I’m a “Nancy”… sorry I’m not sorry! Nowadays I’m all about Kayla Itsines.. You should really google her.

    • Guest

      Amelia and I both downloaded her guide…. unfortunately it’s around my apt somewhere, collecting dust. I DO follow her on Instagram and that girl is AMAZING

    • Esther Levy

      Amelia and I both downloaded her guide…. unfortunately it’s around my apt somewhere, collecting dust. I DO follow her on Instagram and that girl is AMAZING

      • annemaris

        I’m telling you, her guide is the best thing ever. Find it, use it, abuse it. It’s GOLD. I just finished my Friday workout. I feel goooooood! (I really need to stop being a Nancy, don’t I?)

  • I’ve been meaning to try spinning classes, but it’s so expensive in NYC! I’d need to find a second job to support my SoulCycle habit.

    I definitely tell almost everyone I meet to try yoga. It resolved my pinched nerve problem (it felt like my entire left side of my body was asleep for three months after I got hit by a car), and there’s something very therapeutic about being forced to deal with your thoughts and body for an hour on a mat. People get hung up on special sneakers and gear when it comes to working out, but yoga is truly just about you and only you.

    I’ll add that I go to Yoga to the People in the East Village with mixed feelings, but it’s donation based and stripped of the snootiness that can be present in a yoga studio.

  • Cinamaron

    I have been feeling fitness class desires recently, but it is full-on winter here in Minnesota (it’s 14 degrees right now whyyyyy) so that’s probably not going to happen until May. Which is both a relief and frustrating.

    • Lucy

      Fellow Minnesotan here.. Hot yoga has become my JAM. best and only way to warm your bones.

      • Cinamaron

        I might have to try that… I haven’t done yoga for a while, but hot yoga sounds appealing in this weather!

  • Dre

    haha I’m totally a fitness junkie you get such a high after a good sweat, but have no cash, so I basically I alternate between walking, bike rides, doing jane fonda step exercises I find on youtube, pilates/yoga/hula hooping while watching tv shows ^_^’

  • I think I was initianted! I remember that exact day (longing sigh). I used to be sooo innocent…


  • Tricia

    Preach lady. It’s like they learn your name right at the end of intro pricing so then you feel like you’d be a disappointment to them if you never came back.

  • The Kool-Aid Man

    “Nothing sobers up Mr. Kool-Aid like an oncoming polar vortex.” Too true, ma’am. It certainly would.

    • Esther Levy


  • Marie

    I actually love spinning! I attend 5 to 7 hours of spin classes a week; my friends think I’m nuts.