By Jamie Millar
Joe Wicks might need to change his name soon. Because what “The Body Coach” does, who he is, has changed. These days, he’s a mind coach. A life coach. And, of course—the nation’s PE teacher.
A series of 115 YouTube workouts now viewed over 100 million times globally, PE with Joe raised heart rates and spirits during lockdown. He provided desperately-needed positivity, routine amidst the disruption and even got grown-ups jumping around their living rooms as giddily as their children. And the messages Wicks received quickly brought home that what started as a way of getting kids moving, after his UK schools tour was cancelled, had become something else. Something bigger.
“I realised it wasn’t just about kids,” says Wicks. “It was parents, it was adults, it was everybody who was stuck indoors who wanted to have a release. So, it’s my proudest achievement without a doubt. And I just think: what more impact could I have? I helped the nation get fit and get through that time.”
Characteristically kinetic, Wicks isn’t settling on his Guinness World Record for most streams of a live YouTube workout (955,815), to go with his one for the largest HIIT class (3,804). He’s thinking globally: how can he do a school’s tour in Australia and the US? How can he get children over there moving? What other nations could he help get fit and through this time?
Wicks never really stops to think about the scale of what he’s achieved (with a camera in his now globally-recognised living room), because he never really stops. He’s onto the next thing: a 24-hour PE Challenge for BBC Children in Need, his Radio 4 podcast, kids’ picture books, an animated series of “Workout Badges” with the cartoon Hey Duggee. “But when I saw those YouTube views, I was like, ‘That’s mind-blowing.’ That’s like, a Netflix smash hit, 100 million views, you know?”
PE with Joe was a “career-defining moment”, says Wicks - and “unexpected”. When the idea came to him in bed at 15 minutes past midnight, he couldn’t have dreamt that so many kids, people, countries would take part. Or that he’d be made an MBE after donating £580,000 in ad revenue to NHS charities. He certainly couldn’t have dreamt that when he was a PT standing outside Richmond station, handing out flyers for 6am bootcamps, that sometimes nobody would turn up to, that one day he’d be training nearly a million people simultaneously.
“It just opened my mind to think, ‘What I'm doing is actually really impactful,’” says Wicks. “It’s not just about YouTube views. It’s not just about the before-and-afters on Instagram. There are people really suffering and going through a tough time - with anxiety, depression, all kinds of self-esteem issues - and my content helps.”
Wicks could slow down, but an opportunity like his, to “really infiltrate” people’s lives and get them moving, is rare. So, he thinks: keep going. PE with Joe was the latest and greatest demonstration of his ability to connect with people, from toddlers to care home residents: “How can I amplify that? How can I use this energy that I’ve got at this moment in my life to really create change to get people moving?”
There was no light-bulb moment that set Wicks on his mission “to make the world fitter, healthier and happier”. But more than ever, he’s realised that through social media he can reach people all over the world. “Rather than slow down, it’s: use the momentum, use the platform to keep promoting that message around activity, around mood, around exercising to feel good,” he says. “I think a lot of people just do it for fat loss and for body image, right? But there’s so much more to it than that.”
Wick has been on a journey himself. When he was younger, it was about body image. Having abs. Being Lean in 15: his simple, effective formula of quarter-hour workouts and recipes that became a series of bestselling books. But as the 34-year-old has matured, married, and become a father of two, he’s realised it’s about having energy, not being stressed around his kids, patience: “All the motivations for me have changed.”
Wicks has come across so many stories of people who, with his help, have changed physically, often dramatically, but who don’t even really focus on that. Instead, they talk about their mental health. How happy they are, how much more confident they’ve become. So, for him the emphasis shift from body to mind is “a natural progression”.
Wicks still posts before-and-afters on Instagram, because the subjects are proud of what they’ve achieved, and the visual representation of their change can be a real catalyst. “But I don’t just post a transformation,” says Wicks. “There’s always a testimonial beneath it, and I always say, ‘Read the testimonial, because that’s the real victories, that’s the real benefits that are coming through it.’” The way he talks about things and tries to engage his audience over the past few years has also “really changed”.
Engaging his audience takes a lot of Wicks’ time - as many as 12 hours a day. “Social media tops me up but it also drains me as well,” he says. “I love the gratitude and love, and the messages I get from people that have transformed their lives, but sometimes it’s a bit much because I have to read all these messages and think about what I'm going to say. And I'm not a counsellor, I'm not a trained psychotherapist, but I'm having to deal with some really sensitive subjects and pick their energy up.”
Wicks has had messages from followers who are depressed, even suicidal. He can be in bed when the messages come through, thinking: of all the people in the world, why are they telling me this? Then he thinks: maybe because they feel they can trust me. “So I can never ignore those messages,” he says. “Once I’ve read it, I'm replying.” He can be up until midnight doing so, which is why he’s taken to leaving his phone downstairs when he turns in. Helping a drug user get clean or an anorexic get strong is “like an addiction” for him. But doing it too much can be draining.
Contrary to how he can be perceived, Wicks isn’t a bottomless well of energy. The overwhelming response to PE with Joe caused him to have “a little breakdown”. At times towards the end of a year of workouts, he was exhausted, running out of ideas, thinking: were people getting bored? The live stream numbers dropped from a high of nearly a million to less than half - still massive, but a comedown. He kept thinking that if even one person watched then they were going to have a good workout.
In January, when the third lockdown was announced, Wicks welled up on Instagram thinking about all the people who were struggling, trapped in tiny flats with families, unable to afford healthy food or heating. The delay to the lifting of restrictions this summer also got him down. “It drains my energy to think about going backwards,” he says. And the more open he can be about having down days, not exercising or binging on food, being human, he thinks, the better: “Because no one is perfect every day. No one.”
During lockdown, through Russell Brand, Wicks started practicing meditation. And in return, Joe got him into Wim Hof-style breathwork and ice baths, which is “amazing”. He likes switching off - literally turning off his phone for the day - and going to the park or zoo, forgetting about social media and the Body Coach and just being Joe, a dad: “It feels really good to be uncontactable by anybody.” But exercise is his “main therapy”.
Brought up in a council flat with parents who struggled not just financially - his father with addiction, his mother with OCD - Wicks understands the barriers to exercise and eating well. But he still believes there are ways and means. Education about the benefits of fitness and nutrition for mental health, and open communication about feelings from an early age at home and school, is, he thinks, “the most important thing”. Representation is also key, so he recently hired three new, more diverse trainers for the Body Coach team and shared a series of accessible workouts by a deaf PT: “I want my channels to be for everybody.”
Most of all, says Wicks, people struggle with motivation, which comes and goes in waves: “Even me, I'm not motivated right now, I can't be bothered, but there’s other months I'm really, really up for it.” He can “almost sense” the nation’s ups and downs throughout the year, on its journey. So, for him, it’s about trying to somehow pull people back in.
“I think the best way to do that is by saying, ‘Exercise is for feeling good, not for looking good.’ Because when you do it to feel good, and it changes your relationships - with your partner, your parenting – that's a huge motivator.”
When even Wicks isn’t motivated to exercise, he thinks about the after - not physical, but psychological: “You walk back into the room a different person.”