Fitness and nutrition advice have made Joe Wicks, aka “The Body Coach”, a star for the YouTube generation. But his original ambition was to become a PE teacher.
“That was all I wanted to be,” says the top-selling author. “I always loved my PE teachers. I thought they were cool and fun. They were always really patient with me. I thought it was a nice career.”
He managed a short spell as a teaching assistant. But it was not long before Wicks decided instead to pursue a career as a personal trainer. Today, he is a social media sensation.
But the exercise guru has unfinished business as far as schools are concerned. This month, he hopes to become an online PE teacher to a million pupils around the world – and improve the health of their teachers while he’s at it.
Sitting in his Richmond office – decorated with paintings and life-size cardboard cut-outs of Wicks, alongside his awards and quotes – the Body Coach says he is “super excited” to be teaching again.
“It is kind of weird that it’s what I have come back to doing,” he says. “I have sort of become a PE teacher, but an online one.”
Wicks will lead free HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions live on YouTube every morning for five days to encourage more young people in schools to get moving.
“Kids are not doing exercise,” he says. “As soon as they get home, it is just TV and iPads.
“You have got to get that 15 minutes of exercise in somewhere. It will make such a big difference for them.”
‘PE is essential’
Wicks worries that PE is being “pushed back” in the school curriculum. He sees it as “really scary”, especially as childhood obesity in the UK is on the rise.
“I think removing exercise from their day or week is really detrimental to their education,” he says. “It should be up there with English, maths and science. It is essential.”
The 30-year-old is originally from Epsom in Surrey. He visited the town’s Blenheim High School – the school that inspired his PE teacher ambitions – last year.
But, after talking to students, he says that came away “disheartened”.
“They weren’t very engaged,” he says. “I was speaking to the PE teachers about [pupils] dropping out of PE and not being into it. It becomes uncool to want to exercise when you’re in secondary school.”
But it was a different picture when Wicks returned to his old primary, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Epsom, to do a workout with pupils who were “enthusiastic and motivated”.
So his week of HIIT sessions for schools will be targeted at primary pupils as well as teenagers. And Wicks thinks getting younger children engaged in fitness will have a greater impact in the long-term.
“I don’t think you can ever start them too young really,” he says. “If you can get them to like fitness just before they go to secondary school then they’ll be more likely to carry it on.
“This isn’t optional. Exercise, fitness and eating well is essential for a happy childhood.”
It is not just schoolchildren that the Body Coach has his eye on. He hopes his programme with schools will have a “knock-on effect” for teachers, parents and siblings: “If we can get the kids exercising, they might make better food choices as teachers.”
But Wicks understands the challenges that school staff face when it comes to staying healthy. The nutrition coach found it hard to stay disciplined with his diet when he was working as a teaching assistant.
“You get into the staffroom and there is always someone bringing in chocolates, cakes, tea and crisps. It is really difficult,” he recalls. “There is a lot of temptation there.
“Ultimately, kids look up to the people around them – whether it is their mum or dad or their teachers – and you like to think that they will set a good example and be healthy and fit.”
After graduating with a sports science degree from Twickenham’s St Mary’s University, Wicks worked as a teaching assistant in King Athelstan Primary School in Kingston for a year.
“Teaching assistants do not get enough credit,” he says. “They are working with some challenging kids. Together – TAs and the teachers – are both really important.
“I have a massive respect for teachers. It is not an easy job at all. It is really challenging.”
However, despite enjoying helping children learn how to read, Wicks decided he wasn’t “cut out for it”. He saw the pressure teachers were under from Ofsted – the school was in special measures and staff worried about losing their jobs – and he decided to set up his own boot camps in Richmond, London, instead.
He says that the ride to success wasn’t easy. Wicks used to stand outside Richmond station for hours flyering: “I had no clients, no money and I was really sad that I couldn’t pay my dad back a loan.”
But today, his office – which overlooks the very spot where he used to desperately tout for clients – has 40 members of staff, as well as a gym, and a showcase kitchen.
A running track runs right through the middle of the office, which Wicks uses to demonstrate his rather unconventional method of commuting.
He jumps onto his boosted board – an electric skateboard he picked up in California – and travels up and down the track in the office. His staff don’t seem fazed as he whooshes by.
Despite a busy schedule – a deadline for his fifth book on nutrition and fitness looms – he is determined to extend his work with schools. In the future, he wants to lead a campaign for fitness – much like celebrity chef Jamie Oliver did for healthy food.
Wicks says that his “dream” is for all pupils every week to carry out a few workouts in the morning, as well as learning how to cook one healthy recipe in school.
“Teachers would notice the difference,” he insists.
“I want this to be my mission and campaign for years to come. This isn’t just about me doing it online and that’s it. I want to try and get involved with schools and the NHS and make an impact.
“It has to change because we are just getting sicker and more unhealthy. Someone somewhere has got to start inspiring people and I want that to be me.”
This was originally published on September 1, 2017