One man has stepped up to bring calm to chaotic times. And millions of us have stepped up with him, raising our knees as high as we can every time, swinging alternative arms down to touch each knee, repeating for 30 seconds, resting for 30 seconds, getting ready for the next exercise.
At 9am, Monday to Friday, since schools were shut, Joe Wicks has broadcast a PE class from his home in Richmond, improvising a fitness studio in what now must be the most famous front room in the world. While the nation’s children (and me) are still catching their breath after today’s session Wicks calls The Big Issue, while still exercising.
“Just so you know, I’m walking on my treadmill. You can still hear me ok, can’t you?”
Yes… but I know for a fact you’ve just finished a workout.
“Yeah, well, working out is my is my meditation. It’s my mood. It’s my happiness. I feel alive. I love it,” he says. “The one this morning is for everybody but I also need to do something for me. I’ve got a treadmill and an exercise bike, I do 20 minutes on each. I’ve broken a bone in my hand so I can’t do any weights.”
In the carefree days of mid-March, when we could do wild and crazy things like go cycling, Wicks fell off his bike. Whose fault was it?
“I just went around a bend and it was wet and gravelly and I slipped.”
Like Superman’s kryptonite, the cast on Wicks’ left wrist has made this 34-year-old curly-haired hero, fallible, relatable, human. In his morning routines, there are exercises he has to give up on because he can’t put too much strain on his hand. Grown-ups watching at home feel the pain, struggle as it is for many of us just to lift ourselves off the floor, let alone hope to do anything in the plank position while we’re down there.
But that could change. As work-from-home parents search for ways to entertain themselves and their offspring, Wicks’ PE classes begin each day with a burst of energy. On the first morning, nearly a million watched live, by the end of the first week, his videos had received 20 million views – most of these siblings or entire families exercising together.
Wicks, who lives with his wife Rosie and two young children Indie and Marley, is no overnight sensation. Branding himself The Body Coach, he began his YouTube channel in 2011 and 15-second cookery videos turned him into a social media sensation. Nine years, three million Instagram, four million Facebook followers and a series of bestselling books later, Wicks is a personal trainer who retains the personal touch, despite leading fitness classes to millions.
Like his audience, he is also benefitting from the routine: “It’s given me purpose, it’s given me direction. I’m waking up, I’m doing it, I’m having my breakfast afterwards. And yeah, I think that the 9am structure is a perfect time for kids and families to come together.”
When championing the power of exercise, Wicks speaks as fast as he squat-jumps with puppy-dog enthusiasm.
“I’ve been so amazed at how many people taken part. I know there’s millions of kids today that right after that workout will be feeling calm and positive. Whether it’s 100 people or a million people doing it, I love knowing that people are getting that feeling that I want them to experience through fitness.
“I’m seeing families for the very first time exercising together and that’s really powerful role modelling, your parents exercising with you, being silly, being a bit childish and feeling good. I think this is going to have long, long lasting benefits for these children and families.
“My whole ambition is to bring families together for that half hour every day to have some fun, let off a bit of steam and walk away feeling energised. And that’s what I want: exercise not to be this slog that’s brutal, really competitive and is all about ‘winning’. No. You can actually be with your mum or your little brother doing kangaroo hops in the living room.”
I’m just me, aren’t I?
It’s not just in the UK that people are hopping together. Viewers have tuned in from all over the world, and Wicks has been popping up everywhere, from Japan breakfast TV to CNN. Is he having to tone down the banter with a growing international audience in mind?
“I’m just me, aren’t I?” he says. “Hopefully I don’t swear or do anything silly.”
That’s part of the appeal though. With a presenting style that’s nowhere near as polished as his pecs there are frequent technical issues and endearing gaffes like the time he didn’t realise the live stream had started and inadvertently announced to the world that he “needs a shit”.
“The battery conked out the other day [while half a million people were doing ‘Lionel Messi leg kicks’] but I just crack on,” he adds.
Whatever keeps audiences coming back for more, Wicks was determined to put his popularity to good use.
“I’m not benefiting financially, it was truly not my intention,” he explains. “I had no idea we were going to get millions of views but with those views comes revenue so I said right, let’s donate to the NHS.”
In the first week alone, the amount generated was £80,000.
“People know that when they work out, everyone feels like they’re part of something to raise as much as we can,” he continues.
(And just when you think he can’t get more perfect, there’s his long-term support for Big Issue and vendors: “I think it’s an amazing business and an amazing thing to do for people. I love it, it’s great. Lots of love to you all at The Big Issue”.)
Apart from the obvious and immediate health crisis that Covid-19 presents, there are going to be serious and lasting mental health problems for people stuck inside, whose jobs are at risk now and in the future.
“No matter how positive you are this is still a tough time for people,” Wicks says. “It’s so easy to be great on the surface, thinking I’m fine then suddenly, it can all come crumbling down around you.
“I’m no psychologist – but I know the benefits of exercise on depression. The science is there now – it’s an incredible antidepressant. I just try and be the inspiration and motivation.”
On Instagram he has posted updates on his own mental health: “If you’re feeling low, anxious or depressed it’s completely normal and everyone is feeling it on some level. With kids it heightens it, there’s screaming and crying and it is intense. But after exercise I instantly feel better. You can change your mental state by changing your physiological state. Those mental lows suddenly just fade away.”
The mental health benefits of exercise are what Wicks is increasingly focussing on.
“When I launched The Body Coach it was very much based on transforming your body – 90 days fat loss, get lean in 15 – all about how you look. As I worked with thousands and thousands of clients, I started to realise that the real motivation was not the visual change, it was their mental health – how they were sleeping better, achieved more in their business and relationships. Convince someone to try exercise to feel good then you really see a transformation.
“In the past two years, I’ve gone all in on what I call the ‘non-scale victories’, the things you don’t see on the scales or in the mirror. It’s your mind, your sleep, how you digest food better through good nutrition. You don’t have to have supplements and equipment, personal trainers and gyms. You really can be fit and healthy just on your own at home.
“I know that if a human being exercises, whether it’s for 10 minutes, or half an hour a day, they will be a better human. They’re going to be kinder, more patient, less stressed, more positive. I’ve spoken to thousands of clients, whether it’s a 10-minute walk or doing a little yoga class on YouTube, it’s life changing for them. And that’s the drum I’m banging, as long as I can.”
When we reach a new normal, will Wicks use his much-magnified platform to push for exercise to be a higher priority in children’s lives?
“That’s my aim. I think that teachers in schools who have been doing it, they’re gonna be like, ‘This was great. I miss that workout, I miss that energy we had, seeing kids with a smile on their face and being more focused afterwards.’”
Wicks would like every school day to begin with a short workout session and plans to create a library of content that could be used by teachers. But he doesn’t see himself as being at the forefront of a Jamie Oliver-style school dinners campaign.
“Change can be implemented by the teachers themselves,” he explains. “It doesn’t need government legislation or big bills to be passed, what you really need is just one teacher in every school who champions it. They’ll see the benefit. And they’ll tell the school next door, ‘This is what we’re doing, it’s amazing, give it a go.’”
Throughout the interview, barely pausing for a moment while talking, Wicks has been working the treadmill.
“I’m out of breath,” he says, barely out of breath. “I’ve got to turn the incline down. Hang on, I’m walking uphill, it’s really steep.”
But before letting him rest, will he really have the energy to keep his promise of holding a PE class every morning until schools reopen – whenever that may be? He responds like a fitness-obsessed Tom Joad:
“I’m not going anywhere. As long as we’re quarantined, as long as the schools are shut and you need me, I’ll be there.”
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