Joe Wicks on becoming the world's PE teacher: 'I'm finally getting to shine a light on what I believe in'

In the space of a week, The Body Coach has taught PE to 17 million families across the world. He explains what it's been like

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Every morning, at 9am sharp, Joe Wicks stares directly down the lens of his camera, blinking back at him from across his London living room. With an upbeat, “Good morning everyone”, he lays out the plan for the next 30 minutes, during which he will be watched by millions across the world, waiting to copy his every move.

In the space of a week, the online fitness guru has positioned himself as the world's PE teacher. But long gone are the days of "stuck in the mud" and "tag" I remember from school PE classes. Wick's workouts mean business.

You might be fooled by the child-friendly names – the "Fireman Sam ladder climb" or the "Spider-Man lunge" – but one quick Twitter search will bring up hundreds of testimonials from sore parents, who have been following along. For the sake of the kids, of course.

NEWCASTLE UNDER LYME, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 23: Four-year-old Lois Copley-Jones takes part in a live streamed broadcast of PE with fitness trainer Joe Wicks on the first day of the nationwide school closures on March 23, 2020 in Newcastle Under Lyme, United Kingdom. Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to at least 182 countries, claiming over 10,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Gareth Copley)

But every day, they still return for their next instalment. Wicks is managing to not only keep children moving during this period of coronavirus lockdown, he's captured the imaginations of entire families across the world.

"I was hoping that would happen," Wicks tells The National, fresh from the start of week two of PE with Joe. "I was hoping that parents would want to do it with their kids and I really have seen that. For a lot of families, this is the first time ever you've got mums and dads exercising in front of their children.

It's amazing how much children learn from what they see

"I’ve had some funny messages from people saying that they're really sore, that they can’t walk down the stairs or go to the toilet. It’s hilarious because they think it's obviously a really easy workout, but if this is the first time you’ve done squats or lunges in years, you’re going to feel it the next day.”

The idea for PE with Joe came to him in the middle of the night. In March, Wicks was due to head out on a UK-wide tour of schools to teach live PE classes, but as schools closed their doors, the tour got put on hold, along with, he feared, any kind of physical activity for thousands of children across the UK for the foreseeable future.

"I text my brother at gone midnight and told him I had an idea," he says. "I was going to call it PE with Joe, and every day, Monday to Friday, I'm going to do a workout on my YouTube channel. I just had no idea how huge it was going to get. I knew it was going to be shared by UK schools, but I never expected this."

Week one of PE with Joe racked up 17 million views. That's 17 million households across the world taking part, making the true number of sweaty, out-of-breath participants even higher. Wick's face has appeared in newspapers and on TV screens the world over. Naturally, he's feeling a little overwhelmed.

“It's been surreal,” he says, his amazement palpable. “I’ve found it really quite emotional at times because I’ve been trying so hard to get attention for children’s fitness. I’ve been doing a lot of visits to schools, I came to Dubai last year for the Fitness Challenge. It’s not something I only just had the idea for, but I’m truly blown away by the reaction this week.”

When it comes to educating children about fitness, Wicks, aka The Body Coach, has been a man on a mission for the past four years. He’s an ambassador for the BBC’s Children in Need, and, up until last week, was already doing video workouts for schools and families, viewed hundreds of thousands of times – hardly modest numbers, but they suddenly seem dwarfed by the past week’s events.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - October 26, 2019: HIIT 30X30 with Joe Wicks. Guinness World Record attempt for the largest HIIT class. Saturday the 26th of October 2019. Skydive Dubai, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Wicks, 33, isn’t just about children’s fitness, though. He has spoken openly in the past about his humble beginnings as a personal trainer. He has recalled, often with a tremor of emotion, the days when he would ride his bike, with a heavy trailer filled with gym equipment hitched on the back, through a rainy London to Richmond Park, where he would set up for a boot camp he advertised via flyers in his local neighbourhood. Sometimes a handful of people would show up. Sometimes, no one would.

Things started to change for Wicks when he began to play around with Instagram. His lighthearted way of making quick and healthy recipes, paired with his insistence on calling broccoli "midget trees", paved the way for "Lean in 15", his cookery concept that led to three best-selling books, second only in the UK to chef Jamie Oliver.

His venture into children’s fitness has become all the more prevalent, though, since Wicks became a father himself. Dad to Indie, 2, and four-month-old Marley, he and wife Rosie want to ensure fitness is always an important part of their lives.

“It's amazing how much children learn from what they see,” he says. “And I really do think that now I’ve got kids, it’s made me care more about the future of schools and the planet and the environment. I want to bring them up in a healthy world where exercise is fundamental. It should be an everyday thing that we encourage, not just a once-a-week lesson. I'm finally getting to shine a light on what I'm doing, what I believe in.”

And it seems the children following along with his PE with Joe sessions agree. Social media is flooded with videos of children taking part in the 30-minute HIIT-style workouts. Comments such as "I've never seen my daughter actively volunteer for sports before" and "My eight-year-old has been doing the Thor hammer jumps all day" are commonplace. PE, it transpires, is suddenly the most popular lesson of the day. He's even got them doing voluntary homework, coming up with their own workout moves in the hope he might feature them or give them a shout out in a future video.

“It’s really interactive. I’ve had hundreds of kids send workouts and little exercises they have created and the funny names they have given them. It’s so nice to see them all getting involved,” he says. “My vision has always been really clear in my head: to change the culture of fitness within the household. I want it to be a cultural thing that you do, religiously. Not every day maybe, but a few days a week you get up together as a family, you go for a walk or a ride or you do a workout in the living room.

"Imagine how healthy and happy the bond between your parents and your kids will be? The bond between siblings? It will change your whole outlook. That's my aim, that people continue long after this is done.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 23: Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach, teaches the UK's school children physical education live via YouTube on March 23, 2020 from his home in London, England. Joe took to YouTube Live in response to the Covid-19 pandemic which has seen school children around the UK sent home. To keep the nations children active Joe will be teaching PE lesson's every week day from 9AM this week. (Photo by The Body Coach via Getty Images)

In the meantime, Wicks will continue – Monday to Friday - with his classes, for as long as people need him to. And he will donate the money he makes from the millions of video views he gains on YouTube to the UK’s National Health Service, to support the fight against coronavirus.

“My YouTube revenue has never been a massive part of my business and I didn't plan on such a ridiculous amount of views," he says. "I saw the numbers racking up and knew I couldn't keep that money. I don't want to benefit from this financially. So I decided that I'd take every single penny from the PE videos – and I mean 100 per cent of it – and give it all to the NHS. That, to me, is the right thing to do.

"I'm proud I am able to do that and I want to do that. I'm excited that people will now know that when they're exercising with me, they are helping, because the more views, the more money we can donate to the NHS when they need it.”

Wicks will announce exactly what that figure is at the end of the month. But for now, you know where to find him.