Wellness superstar Joe Wicks has it all worked out
Tilly Pearman sits down with the most famous PE teacher in the business to talk mental health, a burgeoning TV career and his latest partnership with lululemon
Monday 24 October 2022 By Tilly Pearman Photography by Jeff Hahn Grooming by Natalie Shafii Styling by Peghah Maleknejad
Joe Wicks has one goal in life, and that is to help people feel better through movement. ‘It’s really easy when you have that clear North Star focus,’ he tells me one morning in September on the rooftop of east London’s Shoreditch House. It may only be 8am, but the 37-year-old is looking fresh. He’s already completed a workout, made a dent in his inbox, and even streamed a quick live video to his online community.
As the UK’s favourite PE teacher, Sussex-born Wicks has come a long way since his early days running poorly attended bootcamps and flyering outside train stations. Today, he is the face and body behind his highly successful fitness brand, The Body Coach. He’s built up a 4.5-million-strong following on Instagram and his 15 books have collectively sold more than four million copies. Plus, in 2020, he broke the Guinness World Record for live broadcasting to 955,158 people in his lockdown fitness challenge series, ‘PE With Joe’.
Has Wicks reached national treasure status yet? Perhaps. But if he’s not there already, then his unwavering focus on helping people will surely get him there soon. You’ll remember that Wicks’s story peaked with ‘PE With Joe’. More than 100 million people tuned in to his daily online exercise class during lockdown, where toddlers through to the elderly connected across living rooms worldwide. ‘After “PE With Joe”, I realised the impact I was having,’ he says. ‘It’s more than just getting people to exercise; it’s actually changing culture’.
‘Of course you can get through life without exercise, but you ain’t thriving’
Wicks received an MBE for his lockdown heroics, and it’s his proudest achievement to date. ‘Obviously, you can look at success as book sales and TV shows, but that’s just numbers, right? “PE With Joe” was proper impact,’ he says. ‘It was a career-defining moment where I was truly living my purpose. And it was my dream.’
Wicks grew up on a council estate in Surbiton, south-west London. The son of a drug addict father and a mother who would scrub the house five times a day as a result of obsessive compulsive disorder, he first spoke publicly about his childhood on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and later in the 2022 BBC documentary, Joe Wicks: Facing My Childhood. He appeared emotionally fragile in the show, which leant his cheeky-chappy persona additional depth. ‘I was learning things on camera for the first time and it was definitely more emotional than I thought it would be,’ he says.
When we meet, Wicks – who is wearing an all-black uniform of lululemon shorts and a T-shirt, and has left his famous mane untied – is in a mellow mood. He tells me that he cried every day he was filming the show. ‘If I’d grown up differently, lived a sheltered life and hadn’t had any issues with my parents, I honestly don’t think I would be doing what I do. I just wouldn’t have had the drive.’ I’m struck by his honesty, though perhaps I shouldn’t be. This is, after all, the man who regularly shares with his community on social media when he’s having an ‘off’ day, or simply struggling to complete a workout because he’s got a stitch.
‘It’s really easy when you have a North Star focus’
It’s his courage that allowed Wicks to look back on and reframe his childhood. Lacking stability at home, he found an outlet through exercise. He remembers being the ‘naughty kid’ at school. ‘I was disruptive,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t sit still at a desk; I’d just be throwing things and leaning back on my chair.’ Eventually, Wicks channelled his hyperactivity into his PE lessons (his favourite class) and the daily five-mile run he would make to school and back. At 16, he became a regular at his local gym, and the rest is history.
Wicks says he still finds it hard to get into the mindset of sedentary people – ‘of course, you can get through life without exercise,’ he says, ‘but you ain’t thriving’ – but he aims to treat everyone with kindness. ‘I used to go to the school fair with a fiver,’ he tells me. ‘I would always come back with presents for my mum and my little brother, never anything for myself. So, it’s always been in me, you know, that kindness, that giving.’
Giving back to his community is so ingrained in Wicks that he still answers all of his direct messages on social media. ‘The more I give, the more I get back, the happier I am,’ he says. ‘That’s why I love doing the DMs. I need to see them.’ He receives hundreds of DMs every single day and spends an average of two to three hours personally replying to as many as he can. ‘If you send me enough DMs, I will get back to you,’ he says. ‘It isn’t always possible to reply to everyone, but the ones who really need help, I’ll take the time to reply to them.’
In the past, Wicks has dabbled with various commercial deals – from the current and successful (lululemon and Gousto) to the past and failed (My Protein and kitchenware with John Lewis). But with characteristic positivity, he says he doesn’t regret anything (he still cooks with the aforementioned range of pots and pans despite them never quite hitting the sales targets), and what he has learnt is that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. ‘I say to myself, just do what you’re good at, which is good food content, good fitness content and motivation.’
Lately, he’s been doing just that. Aligned more than ever to his values, Wicks, alongside his business partner and older brother, Nikki, has been working hard to develop The Body Coach brand and ensure its legacy. ‘I would love to see The Body Coach live on beyond me,’ he says. ‘I want it to be a brand that you trust in looking after both your physical and mental health.’
Arguably, the most important work Wicks is currently engaged in is about creating greater awareness around mental health. My Journey With Joe Wicks – a recently launched four-part docuseries with global wellness brand lululemon – was a key starting point. As the host of the show, he worked with four guests (Louis Theroux, Nicola Adams, Adele Roberts and Dr Alex George) taking each person on a different outdoor activity where, alongside movement, they chatted openly about mental health.
‘Louis Theroux is one of my heroes’, says Wicks. ‘I took him paddle boarding in Wales and together we just had a walk and talked about his career, his background, his life as a parent, and what he has been through as an individual. It was a really open conversation where Louis could let his guard down.’
Wicks speaks with similar admiration about his other guests, too. ‘I loved all the conversations,’ he says. ‘There was so much synergy, because all of these people also believed in movement for mental health.’ For Wicks ‘everyone’s got an amazing story’ and he tells me that he’d love to make more documentaries around mental health, acknowledging that now more than ever people need a space to connect, talk and find movement.
Latest estimates in the UK predict that one in six adults experiences a ‘common mental disorder’ and that globally, psychological distress, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, has triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression. And yet despite there being research to suggest that physical movement can benefit mental health, the latest YouGov tracker finds that just one in 12 Brits completes the NHS recommended 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. But Wicks stays optimistic. ‘Everyone turns to it [exercise] at some point,’ he says. ‘It could be through yoga or dance, or it could be cycling or going cold-water swimming; you’ve just got to try different things until something clicks.’
Through his brand, podcasts, books and projects like My Journey With Joe Wicks, he’s hopeful that he can continue to inspire people to start moving and talk more openly about their mental health. ‘I’ll keep doing it until I run out of steam,’ he tells me when I ask whether he’ll ever stop. ‘It’s the same stuff. Just every year I get a little bit older, but the message has been the same from the start.’