Joe Wicks is credited with keeping a nation of parents sane with his online PE classes for children during lockdown. His smiling face could be seen every morning as he helped not only people’s physical but mental well being. The videos raised £500,000 for the NHS and earned Wicks an MBE as well as turning him into something of a national treasure.
The self-styled Body Coach has a following of more than four million on Instagram.
Now, with the pandemic seemingly under control, Wicks is increasingly turning his attention to helping improve people’s mental health rather than just how they look through exercise and eating well.
“There’s been a massive shift in my narrative over the last couple of years, especially through the pandemic and the links that have surfaced between mental health, the food we eat and the exercise we do,” says father of two Wicks whose wife Rosie is expecting their third child in September
“There’s always such a big emphasis on food for fat loss and getting lean by cutting things out, but actually I think the most important thing that draws people back to healthy food and home cooking is the feeling they get when they spend time in the kitchen, creating wonderful recipes with their family and enjoying the food and the energy it gives you.
“I think people often think adequate exercise and sleep is enough to feel fine, but if your diet consists of mainly heavily processed foods, then this isn’t going to give you energy and will instead bring you down.”
His latest cookery book Feel Good Food is about getting in the kitchen and enjoying the process of preparing food, understanding what you’re putting in your body and how this can benefit energy levels, focus, attention and mood.
“For me personally, when I eat junk food I notice I can be more snappy and irritable. Allowing myself treats every now and then is totally fine, but I’ll always come back to nourishing my body with food that makes me feel good. It’s something I’m really passionate about – food, sleep and exercise are all very important to me, because without one of them, it’s very easy to feel off balance.”
He admits that particularly during lockdown like many people he turned to home delivery meals more often than he should.
“It just became so easy to pick up the phone and order some food and it arrived on your doorstep. We have to move away from that as a regular way of eating. I wanted to write a cookery book that allowed people to bang out a healthy tasty meal in 10 to 15 minutes – these are the type of meals I cook at home with Rosie and the kids (Indie and Marley).”
A teaching assistant then personal trainer, Wicks started off posting 15-second recipe videos on social media and grew his brand to become one of the most followed fitness accounts on Instagram and YouTube. His first published cookbook Lean in 15: 15-minute meals was a best-seller in 2015, having sold more than 900,000 copies. “This book is slightly different from what I’ve done in the past, my Lean in 15 books were very much based solely on body image.
“But that was seven or eight years ago now and my message has changed a lot since then.
“Feeling good and feeling energised and experiencing the mental and physical benefits of great food and exercise, that’s what brings you back to a cookbook.
“I think this book contains a really important message for everyone going through a difficult time at the minute – there’s still a lot of anxiety and people feeling low, especially with Covid still lingering, so putting good food in your body means you’re giving yourself the best chance to take on the day feeling energised.”
The more you speak to Wicks the more you realise just how important mental health is to him and for very personal reasons.
He grew up on a council estate in Epsom, Surrey and his parents were a roofer and social worker. But behind closed doors the family was suffering.
His father had drug problems and his mother suffered from mental health issues, eating disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It is something Wicks has explored making a documentary for the BBC with Louis Theroux, due to be screened this year.
“Mum went into rehab for five months when I was little,” recalls Wicks. “It was for her eating disorder and OCD but at the time we just knew she’d left us.”
Wicks has two brothers.
During filming Wicks was able to ask her what happened. “I said you left us for five months. And she said ‘I was struggling so much that I needed help.’ It was very difficult to have that sort of conversation but so important.”
His father’s drug problems also led to a troubled childhood for Wicks who says his life could have been very different.
“I had two choices to make and I chose fitness and health. I wanted people to see that even coming from a background like mine you can achieve.
“I’ve spent a lot of time helping people improve their physical health, but as a child that grew up in a home with parents that struggled with their mental health, I know that this is just as important, especially given what’s happened over the last year. I’m passionate about exploring it and I want to use my own experience to connect and help families today who are in similar situations to the one I was in. I also want to share the message that exercise can be a really powerful tool in helping to boost our mental health.”
An estimated 3.7 million children in England live in a home where an adult has a mental health issue, and the pressures of family life have intensified over a year of lockdowns and economic uncertainty. In the programme, Wicks met children and families struggling in situations similar to his own childhood and the people at the sharp end trying to help them.
As well as exploring how children are affected by their parents’ mental health struggles, Wicks investigates how we can better support these kids and what can be done to improve the mental wellbeing of the nation’s families.
“It was really hard to make, but really important. I think it will be there forever.”
Joe Wicks will be coming to Sheffield and Leeds on tour on March 23. He will be at Waterstones in Meadowhall at 1pm to 2pm and then at Waterstones in Albion Street, Leeds from 6.30pm to 9pm.
Feel Good Food by Joe Wicks is published by HQ, HarperCollins, £20 and eBook.