“It makes everything an equal playing field:” Neoliberalism and the Orangetheory Fitness Mediated Playspace.

Curator's Note

Efficiency is the key.

Or at least, that is what the YouTube promotional video titled “The Orangetheory Workout/ How it Works and Why You’ll Love it” contends.  In the digital era, when time is the most valuable commodity and the boundaries between work/leisure are increasingly blurred, Orangetheory Fitness (OTF) provides a space in which you can maximize your workout time. The program’s main selling point is a promise that potential clients can “burn fat 24-36 hours after your workout.”[1]  The notion that weight loss can occur after leaving the gym has to be enticing for the typical neoliberal subject who is constantly pressed for time. Progress is measurable, workouts are customizable, and results come faster.

I do not wish to evaluate the effectiveness of OTF’s exercise regimen, nor am I attempting to highlight the negative health effects of fitness trackers or the gamification of fitness. Rather, I will examine how Orange Theory Fitness constructs an ideal player through the interplay of marketing strategies, mobile technologies, and the procedural rhetoric of the mediated playspace.  

The OTF gym is designed as a mix between a night club and arcade. Loud music blares as the trainers and screens guide clients from one workout station to the next.  Various screens are broadcasting numbers pertaining to the clients working out in the gym. Each individual score (a combination of heartrate, calories burned, and “splat points”) is visible on the treadmills in front of them or projected on a flat screen in the center of the gym.  OTF promises an individualized and personal fitness experience through the power of digital technologies and screens. It also speaks to our increased comfortability with reducing elements of our life to a numeric which can be easily quantifiable, measured, and tracked across mobile media.

OTF is yet another fitness program attempting to capitalize on two popular trends in the fitness economy. First, OTF is a group fitness program with high intensity interval training. Thus, OTF is very similar to other fitness regimes like CrossFit, Zumba, Kickboxing, and others. Second, OTF incorporates digital monitoring technologies that quantify movements and measures results. The use of fitness trackers and light wearable technologies (such as smartwatches or fitness bands) has exploded in popularity amongst exercisers in recent years. Hence, it is not surprising that OTF would implement these technologies into their fitness space.

OTF may be yet another fitness program in our neoliberal climate that portrays “healthiness” as less determined by structural factors or preexisting conditions but something you earn through continuous hard work. However, what separates OTF from other fitness programs is how the configuration of the gym space and the use of an array of media encourage a form of ludic participation. Therefore, it may be helpful to borrow interactive media and video game theories of play in an analysis of OTF’s mediaspace. The quantification and measurement of heartrate and burned calories shares many similarities with the logic of “grinding” in a video game. Game scholar McKenzie Wark has written extensively about how videogames construct a utopian alternative to the real world in which performing repetitive tasks or continuous play/work is rewarded with in-game benefits.[2] As Scott Rettberg states in his analysis of World of Warcraft, videogames offer “a convincing and detailed simulacrum of the process of becoming successful in capitalist societies.”[3] Therefore, videogames “offer its players a capitalistic fairytale in which anyone who works hard and strives enough can rise through society’s ranks and acquire great wealth.”[4] Players are willing to spend hours of tedious work, not because they are being deceived by the spectacle of media, but because they are continuously rewarded. Digital games provide a true meritocracy for players. This can be especially enticing when the promise of “the American dream” continuously underwhelms in the real world.   

Videogame scholar Ian Bogost argues that video games open a new domain for persuasion. Rather than images or the spoken word, procedural rhetoric works through process or “rule-based representations and interactions.”[5]  Just as videogames rely on engagement from the player while also constraining the types of actions that can be performed in the game space, I argue that the OTF mediated playspace acts similarly. This is not to say that the experience of working out in OTF is analogous to playing a traditional videogame. Rather, this fitness program and its spatiotemporal logic uses a similar procedural rhetoric.

For example, the traditional OTF workout is an hour-long session divided into five “zones” each designed for a different intensity level.  The “orange zone,” according to the company’s website, is “where the magic happens.” The player is urged to achieve “EPOC” or “Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption” to maximize caloric burn. Reaching this level allows players to burn calories “after” the workout is completed. The minutes spent in the orange and red zones grant player “splat points,” with the potential to earn up to 12 splat points per workout.[6]  This in-game currency (if you will) is meant to signify a successful workout. The player is encouraged to “imagine the sound of a fat cell exploding” every time they earn a splat point. OTF promises that every player has an ideal body waiting to be uncovered through repetitive chiseling of body fat. OTF’s marketing strategy and spatial logic is yet another case study in the neoliberal movement which increasingly delegates the responsibility of health on the individual. Fighting sickness, or at least unhealthiness, is portrayed as a personal responsibility and choice.

The procedural rhetoric of OTF is not merely training its players to be good corporate citizens but also legitimizes normative assumptions about health. Those who succeed at the OTF game are willing to put in the hard work. Structural factors, such as economic inequality, are made invisible and meant to mask the privilege of having the economic power to afford OTF’s rather expensive price.

This is not to say that OTF is alone in perpetuating normative health standards. For example, Katta Spiel et al. state that fitness tracking technologies may promise to facilitate a better life, but instead “define it, without oversight, without transparency, using emotional design tricks to engage in a progressive redefinition of what it means to be human.”[7] Therefore, fitness trackers (like all interactive media) are not benign technologies but perpetuate socially constructed understandings of health and the fit body. The mythology of the meritocracy, legitimized in fitness technologies, simply “serve those who are already best served by society (white, thin, abled)” and lead to the “exclusion of specific marginalized groups in western societies.”

Although it is important to examine how gyms and fitness trackers frame healthiness and direct their clients in a particular ludic participation, future research should examine how individuals actually use these media. Rather than conceptualizing the viewer/user/player as completely powerless to manipulation, it would be productive to examine how players use fitness technologies and interactive media in meaningful, unproductive, unpredictable, contradictory, and nonnormative ways.


[1] Orangetheory Workout |  How It Works and Why You’ll Love It, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9u_S46tn3oo.

[2] McKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory (Harvard University Press, 2009).

[3] Scott Rettberg, “Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft,” in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (MIT Press, 2008).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (MIT Press, 2010), ix.

[6] “Heart-Rate Based HIIT Workout | Orangetheory Fitness US,” accessed March 25, 2021, https://www.orangetheory.com/en-us/workout/.

[7] Katta Spiel et al., “Fitter, Happier, More Productive?: The Normative Ontology of Fitness Trackers,” in Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’18: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Montreal QC Canada: ACM, 2018), 4.

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