oe Wicks is supposed to be the man who makes you feel better. He was the hero of the first lockdown, getting more than 22 million children (and their parents) to do his PE lessons every day, boosting moods one burpee at a time, and raising half a million pounds for the NHS. So it is disorientating to find this man whose pure, good nature I came to rely on in the spring looking somewhat deflated when I call on FaceTime. He greets me with a yawn.
“You can see how tired I am,” he says, rubbing his eyes. “I had broken sleep last night because baby Marley is teething so I am feeling it today.” In his baggy blue T-shirt, Wicks, 34, still looks better than most of us do even after eight hours of sleep; with tousled brown curls, toned, tanned arms and perfect teeth — like a member of a Nineties boyband — but he sounds exhausted, a shadow of his usual ebullient self. Anyone else would have taken a day off but that is not the Wicks way. He has workouts to record. PE with Joe is back to take the edge off lockdown 2.0. This time, because schools are still open, he is limiting his PE lessons to three 15-minute pre-recorded workouts a week.
Wicks has a formidable work ethic. He has only taken eight days off this year — every spare minute is spent either filming new exercise routines, working on his fitness app (“I want to find more diverse and female trainers to do classes on it”) or writing recipes. He is a prolific cookbook author, his 10th one, 30 Day Kick Start Plan, is out this month and Lean in 15 is the biggest-selling diet book ever. “I struggle having rest days,” he says. “I want to do something.” The biggest change to these workouts, though, is that they are filmed in his home gym.
Wicks, his wife Rosie, a former glamour model, and their two children, moved out of their £1 million home in Richmond in August because, he says, “we needed more privacy”. He gave his Instagram followers a tour of his new place, with “a garden that I dreamed about”. But the move wasn’t entirely voluntary.
“We were living on a main road in Richmond and fans would knock on the door, bring me letters or jars of marmalade or gin,” he says. “It was nice but coming out with Indie, my daughter, and having them or the paparazzi there was weird. I have not had that kind of attention before and if I am on a trajectory where I am becoming a bit more well-known, I need more privacy.” He adds, in a sad voice, “I do miss Richmond and the room where I did PE with Joe. I need to unpack my guitars.”
Thinking about privacy is a shift for Wicks, who is a naturally open person and grateful for every new viewer doing his workouts, welcoming them with cheers on screen. He made his name on Instagram, where he has 3.8 million followers and a friendly, accessible tone, sharing pictures of his photogenic family, his own body anxieties and his story — he grew up on a council estate in Epsom and his father was addicted to heroin from a young age. His instinct is still to share but he is trying to have a more considered approach.
“I watched The Social Dilemma documentary and it opened my eyes,” he says. “Now I have a new rule, from 5pm until 7.30pm I leave my phone downstairs so I can do dinner, bath time and story time and not get distracted. I am so attached to my device so I wanted to take my time back. Now I feel more present.”
Since the first lockdown, Wicks has been doing guided meditation a couple of times a week with the Headspace app. “It helps me stay calm and present,” he says. “Before that I was getting into self-pity but I have changed my perspective and it has allowed me to stay a bit more positive. I have come to terms with lockdown and that I am powerless, I am not getting myself worked up about all the things I can’t do and the holidays I wish I’d had, I am just trying to focus on today.”
The new workouts are designed to keep spirits up, rather than burn fat. “Even though schools aren’t closing, I do feel like parents and adults need this for their mental health.” He keeps them fresh by “varying the timing” and his wrist, which was injured in lockdown, is better, so he can do burpees again.
Wicks needs all the energy he can get. Tomorrow, he faces a serious endurance test — he is doing a 24-hour fitness challenge for Children in Need, exercising non-stop with just five-minute breaks every hour “to have a wee and eat. I have asked for loads of nice sandwiches, cakes and biscuits, I will eat anything that is stuffed in my face. I don’t think I have done an all-nighter before, maybe once or twice when I went clubbing but never sober”. Is he nervous? “It is going to suck,” he states. “I am not nervous but I know I will feel miserable. When the money rolls in though I will feel better. It feels good to help others. Children in Need will struggle this year.”
Even cynics can see that there does seem to be a genuine wish to do good driving Wicks. “My greatest achievement in my head is PE with Joe,” he says. “It’s not the MBE or the revenue or the book sales.” From anyone else this might sound like a humble brag but Wicks doesn’t do those. “When I am helping people I am at my most energised and happy. I don’t want people to think I am doing it for the money or the followers.” Wick’s estimated net worth is £14.5 million but, he says, “I don’t spend, apart from my motorbike.”
When Marcus Rashford spoke about free school meals, it chimed with Wicks, who also comes from a family who didn’t have much financially, and is now using his platform to make a positive change, without waiting for anyone from official channels. “I was one of those kids on free school meals,” he says. “That was what we relied on. The Government should’ve just given out free school meals right away. I don’t understand why they didn’t. They aren’t thinking of long-term effects.” “When I was younger, meals were madness. We didn’t eat together, we would grab sandwiches. My mum made food a bit but it was things like crispy pancakes, she didn’t know how to cook.”
His mother, Raquela, left home at 15 and met his father in a squat. She had his brother Nikki when she was 17 and Joe at 19. They all have a good relationship now. His father is clean, and ran the London Marathon last year. His mother did PE with Joe every day in lockdown, his father watches and cheers but prefers running, Nikki is head of content for Wicks (and reads the shoutouts in the videos) and little brother George has just started doing the workouts.
“I am not ashamed of my dad’s history,” says Wicks. “He has battled with drug addiction all his life but today he is clean, he is sober and we have a great relationship. We went on a motorbike trip to Scotland in the summer, which was one of his dreams. It is nice to have something mutual in common like the bikes that we all get a lot of pleasure from.”
PE was the only lesson Wicks enjoyed at school and when we talk about it he appears to wake up and become more like the Joe Wicks we know from YouTube. “It was the only lesson I wanted to be in, I’d round everyone up to start. In other lessons I was distracted and disruptive but with PE I never wanted it to end. I wanted to be a PE teacher so it is amazing that now I am doing that.”
Wicks’s attitude to his body has changed. “When I was younger I exercised to look good, I was a skinny teenager, I wanted to be bigger but now I exercise to feel good, it means I wake up happier.” He encourages Rosie to work out, “she prefers weights to cardio, I’ll offer to look after the kids and tell her to do a little Peloton so she feels better”.
More broadly, he would like the Government to take fitness, nutrition and children’s mental health more seriously. “It needs more emphasis. I did PE with Joe but I can’t do it forever, the Government needs to be supporting more work with health and nutrition, funding it.” Would he work with the Government? “That would be too disheartening. I don’t want to be a campaigner and things not to happen, I’d rather do things today that make an impact. For me, PE with Joe made an impact. I don’t feel I need the Government to do that, I got into every school and home in the UK.”
His new app is part of this mission. “I want to try to find other trainers for it,” he says. “It is all on me at the moment so it is quite tiring. I want to build the app so it can live beyond me.”
I will be rooting for Wicks as he embarks on his 24-hour challenge. Even in his current careworn state, in dire need of some sleep, he is one of those rare humans who is making the world a better place. I hope he gets a well-deserved rest soon.
You can watch Joe Wicks’s 24-hour challenge on BBC iPlayer and donate here.