'It's harder to have a routine when you have a child' - Joe Wicks' help for the reluctant exerciser
He knows himself that a beefier, more muscle-bound guy would be a more obvious fitness guru, but Joe Wicks has a peppy charm that has made him a get-healthy superstar. He tells Sarah Caden how his 15-minute mantra appeals to a time-poor generation, how parenthood has made him more sympathetic to those too tired to exercise, and how he plans to get our kids moving
Joe Wicks is in Ireland for the weekend, and he's "staying with the Happy Pear".
Of course, this makes perfect sense. Wicks and the Happy Pear twins, David and Stephen Flynn, are a trio made in positive-thinking, open-hearted, clean-living heaven, and this is the second time he's been to stay with them in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
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"They don't actually live together?" I ask, half-joking.
"Not quite, but pretty much," answers Wicks, earnestly. "And I actually stayed in a hotel nearby. We got up at 5am yesterday and went swimming in the sea.
"About 1,000 people were doing this sunrise swim in the Irish Sea," Wicks exclaims. "It was freezing, but it's nice to get people together and get out of your comfort zone like that. I rarely get up that early, never mind get in the sea. But I loved it."
Wicks goes on to enthuse about the Happy Pear pair, outlining their positivity, their sense of community, their enthusiasm, their generosity. Wicks could, of course, be describing how his 2.6m Instagram followers would describe him, not to mention the 700,000 who follow his YouTube HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts, or follow his blog and buy his bestselling cookbooks. He's the first to say that he's not the beefiest, most muscled workout guru in the world, but he may well be one of the nicest.
"I think it's how I engage with people and give everyone a really positive message," Wicks says of his massive appeal, which is among women, men and even children. "I tell them they will enjoy it; that they'll feel really good. It's not about weight loss, it's not about body image, it's about feeling good."
And, obviously, Wicks, with his bouncy curls and his lean six-pack and happy-go-lucky attitude, is a terrific advert for his ethos. If he can look this good, eating "lots" and exercising intensely but briefly "about five times a week", then surely we can, too? Fans love his upbeat attitude to "midget trees" (broccoli), to "bad" days when you just want a burger and should go ahead and have one, and to feeling too time-poor to exercise.
When I meet Wicks, he's in Dublin for WellFest in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. A fitness class on a stage in front of hundreds booms out in the background as we talk. On our way to find somewhere comfortable to sit, we pass his partner, Rosie, and their baby daughter Indie, who is not yet 10 months old, but he says is almost walking.
Wicks says they're a family "on tour" at the moment, as he attends WellFest, following a campaign of getting kids active in schools around the UK, which he brought to a handful of schools around Ireland and Northern Ireland in the weeks after we met. He thrives on being busy and spreading his message and, it seems, people seem to thrive as result.
It would be easy to read Wicks's positivity as something that is simply part of his personality, a quality of his character. Instead, however, this picture-perfect body and life and little family are things that Wicks has worked hard to call to himself.
Getting to where he is now hasn't been easy, but it's how he's kept a smile on his face and a sunny disposition while determinedly striving that has won Joe Wicks a place in people's hearts.
PE was the only thing that Joe Wicks enjoyed at school. He was the class clown, engaged by nothing, with an unsettled family background that fed into his restlessness.
Wicks is the middle son of three boys, who grew up eating what he now sees as a terrible diet of cheap processed food, sugar, fizzy drinks, and whatever was on a deal in the supermarket. He doesn't criticise his parents for this - he simply hammers home that if you don't know any better, you can't do any better.
Wicks's father, Gary, was a heroin addict, who was in and out of the home through his sons' childhoods.
Wicks's mother, Raquel, did her best "on the social". One of the first things Wicks did when he made big money, which happened at high speed over the last few years, was to buy Raquel a house.
He's very proud of both his parents, who had their first child in their mid-teens. Raquel went to college and is now qualified as a social worker, while Gary got off heroin and ran a marathon last year.
When Wicks tells his history, which he does regularly and freely, it is from the point of view of showing that people can change and be happier and do better by themselves. It takes effort, obviously, but that effort doesn't have to be yet another form of self-punishment.
Wicks studied sports science and started out as a personal trainer. He began spreading the word of his short and sharp, body-altering workouts in a park in his native Surrey, where he ran sunrise bootcamps, handing out flyers for them in the train station.
From there, Wicks decided to spread the message further afield, and the growing power of social media was his friend. He took to Instagram in 2014, uploading workout instructions and recipes, fitness tips and Q&As.
"All of my work and my philosophy has been built around a 15-minute promise," Wicks says. "You're busy you don't have time to exercise - you can do this 15-minute workout at home. You're busy, you have kids - you can try this 15-minute meal that will be healthy for everyone. It's this quick thing that will work out for everyone in a short space of time.
"It can be quite hard to convince people," says Wicks. "People find it hard to understand that you can do 20 minutes of exercise and it's enough. Like, most people are used to doing like, hours of cardio, and it's just unnecessary.
"If you work really hard, for a short period of time, you can sustain a good physique. It really is what I do, and I eat a lot of food and I train 20, 25, sometimes 30 minutes at a push, about five days a week. And once people get into that routine, it's habit-forming, isn't it? Doing your YouTube workouts, prepping your meals on a Sunday, these habits can be instilled into your life."
He had hundreds of followers, and he knew he was on to something, but it wasn't until Instagram introduced videos that it all exploded. He was gaining thousands of followers every day, particularly for his 15-second-recipe Instagram videos, the style of which put his hero Jamie Oliver in the hapenny place. There were the aforementioned "midget trees" but also his exclamations of "cheeeeeky!" and "nauuuuughty", that somehow worked for him.
Admittedly, when he took this format to television screens in 2016, there was a slight backlash of viewer irritation, but in many ways, that just shows how TV and social media are two very different things. And, frankly, Joe Wicks doesn't need the former.
His 2016 first book, Lean In 15, was published and was a phenomenal success. He has followed it with multiple bestsellers on the same 15-minute premise, including this year's very on-trend Veggie Lean In 15. A Wean In 15 book is most likely on the cards, but for now, he has a separate Instagram account for all his weaning wisdom, gleaned through daughter Indie.
"It's separate to my Body Coach Instagram," says Wicks with a laugh, "because not everyone wants to know about baby stuff all the time."
Since having Indie last July, I wonder does Wicks have an extra understanding of how time-starved a lot of people are?
"It's harder to have a routine when you have a child," Wicks says. "It used to be I'd get up and do my workout, and that was what happened; that was how it was. But now, if I have a broken night's sleep, I don't want to train, so I might have to reschedule it to the afternoon or something, but the important thing is keeping the habit, and not letting the excuses creep in.
"It's easy to get out of shape when you're tired," he says, a truth that a lot of working parents can relate to, and the "little voices" are the enemy.
The little voices are those that say you won't bother to train today, you'll do it tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. And then, when the tomorrows have become weeks and you've been eating badly and you feel rubbish, the little voices are even more successful in dissuading you from resuming the good habits.
"I have days when I don't want to exercise and I just want to eat what I want. And it's OK to do that, but not to let it go on. A little blowout is OK, but you can't let that become the routine because your energy drops, and your momentum. Momentum is so important with exercise, I think. It's important to keep going, give it the 10 minutes. Do it."
The idea of Wean In 15 started as a joke, Wicks says, originating with his older brother Nikki, who has older children. "This was long before I had a baby," Wicks says. "But when Indie was born, I realised I really wanted advice on what to give her and when, so I've teamed up with this really awesome nutritionist, and we're developing recipes and I'm sharing my journey.
"The fitness thing is really big right now and a huge part of my career, but in the future, when I've got lots of kids, I'll be aimed more at families and children."
The confidence with which he says "when" he has five children, not "if", is very Joe Wicks.
Five? I say. "Lots of kids," he answers. "Yeah, five. Rosie's out there, you can check with her. Yeah, five. We love kids. We've just been travelling for a month with Indie in Costa Rica. We just took a car and winged it, and it's lovely having her with us, and she's just exploring the world, and we get to have her with us.
"I love the idea of a big home full of children," Wicks continues, and the family portrait, you can't help but think, is quite different to that which he grew up with. "I love a big, manic house of kids running around and parties. I like community. I like my friends and family being around, and I like dinner parties and people.
"Like, we're on the road now with three kids. There's me and Rosie, and my brother Nikki and his missus and their two, so it's, like, being all together all the time, and going to the playground together, and the kids playing together, and us playing with them. You forget to play as an adult. It makes you feel younger being around kids."
Being a father has most certainly focused Wicks's mind on how we raise our children and feed them and help them to be active. His philosophy of exercise being accessible to everyone, not just those who excel at it, extends to children. In fact, he believes it's even more important to teach that lesson to children early in life.
Earlier this year he went on a tour of schools in England, Scotland and Wales, where he brought his message to more than 10,000 children. He did a HIIT session with them, interviewed parents and teachers, and showed them how to make some simple recipes for themselves.
Last month, nine schools in Ireland and Northern Ireland welcomed Wicks. "There's so much research now showing that when kids exercise, they're better little students," Wicks says. "Even five minutes of moving around the classroom can make an enormous impact. I can feel my whole shift going from adults to kids and how to get them exercising. That's what you're going to see me doing a lot more of in the next few years."
The welcome he received in the schools really blew Wicks away, he adds. "I'd turn up at the schools and it was like going into a concert," he says with a laugh. "I'd run in, and there'd be screaming, and I've never had such a great energy from a group of people. It made me realise I've got an influence that I can really use to inspire. It's not inspiring them to do that one workout, it's inspiring them on an ongoing basis."
Wicks's keen understanding of the key to his success is apparent in his analysis of why schools gave him such a huge welcome. "It's because I'm a YouTuber," he says. "If I was on TV, they probably wouldn't be that fussed. But I'm on YouTube, which makes it like a pop star coming to school."
Does he enjoy that reaction? I ask.
"Yeah," he says with an honest smile. "It's really fun."
He describes "two dads" who stopped him the previous day, looking for selfies, full of praise for his system.
"They were all, 'I love it, and I do it'," says Wicks. "It was great. And I sometimes wonder why these guys are drawn to me and not some big muscly guys, but I think it's because the quick message is fun and easy.
"In Ireland, of all the places I travel, I get the most warmth. I get recognised in Dublin more than anywhere."
That welcome, Joe Wicks says, will keep him coming back. "Maybe in the summer," he says. "When the sea gets warm."
Such is Joe Wicks's infectious optimism, I don't have the heart to tell him that will never happen. And somehow, when he takes the plunge again and finds it cold, I suspect he'll see the positive side.
It's who Joe Wicks is, and who we want him to be.
5 tips for the reluctant exerciser
1 Buddy up
There's no reason why your workout should be done solo. Why not invite a friend round to exercise together at home, or book in for a class together?
2 Lay your kit out
Lay your kit out the night before so you can just get up and get going.
3 Set a time to exercise AND keep to it
Make your workouts into appointments that you can't rearrange. Set calendar reminders, and schedule not only your session, but your routine afterwards - shower, food, etc.
4 Make your goals achievable
That's not saying don't make them challenging, but breaking down your fitness goals into smaller, achievable chunks can really help, and so does being clear on what you want to achieve.
5 Keep it short, simple and fun
I'm a big fan of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as a great way to burn fat; it doesn't take too long and it will send your energy levels through the roof! You can also easily do this from home, making it manageable to fit into your routine.
5 tips for the reluctant vegetarian
1 Eat the rainbow
Aim to make your plate as colourful as possible to ensure you're getting in a variety of nutrients.
2 Don't be afraid to try new things
It may be the case that trying new vegetables or veggie products helps to broaden the range of meals and snacks you can choose from. Explore new flavours, and find new foods that you love.
3 Enjoy tasty recipes
There are lots of vegetarian cookery books out there like my book, Veggie Lean In 15. If you're struggling with options, use recipes to cook from and for inspiration.
4 Use spices and herbs
Add flavour to all your meals using your favourite spices and herbs. Veggie food doesn't have to be bland or boring.
5 Prep like a boss
Veggie or not veggie, this is always top of my list if you want to keep it lean while you're on the go. Plan ahead with your meals and prep like a boss so you can start adding in more plant-based meals, without spending too much time in the kitchen.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine