Joe Wicks on the link between food and mental health, the power of ice baths, and working with Louis Theroux
Two years on from the first UK lockdown, when PE With Joe got thousands of kids (and grown-ups) moving, Joe Wicks looks back on those four months with fondness.
“It was like my moment to shine – I had so much purpose, I was living my dream… It was really everything I’d dreamed of doing,” he tells me on the phone, chatting while ambling around a lake near his home in Surrey (“I thought rather than sit on the sofa eating a bag of Lindt balls, do it walking”).
The 20-minute workout videos, intended to help school children who were missing PE lessons to stay active, earned Wicks an MBE in the Queen’s 2020 Birthday Honours list and a Guinness World Record for most viewers for a fitness workout live stream on YouTube (over 950k).
But the fitness expert – who gained a huge following after he started posting 15-second recipe videos online back in 2013, and has written multiple cookbooks since – says he started to struggle when the high began to fade.
“I mean, everyone suffered. For me it was delayed, because when we went into lockdown, I was straight to work,” he says. “It wasn’t until it all stopped and I processed it, [that I] felt quite sad.”
The 36-year-old, who lives with wife Rosie (who is pregnant with their third child) and kids Indie, three, and Marley, two, is pleased many people – himself included – are now more open about their mental health as a result of the pandemic.
“I think it’s just become normalised now, [to recognise] that actually everyone has mental health. And some days you feel really, really happy, but on other days, for no reason at all, you don’t feel yourself. And it’s learning to have coping mechanisms to help that.”
Wicks has installed a DIY ice bath in his garden, which he hops into every other day for some pulse-quickening cold water therapy. “For me, it’s definitely not a physical thing – it’s more of a mental thing,” he explains. “It’s extreme meditation really, but in cold water. That helps me let a bit of stress out, but also brings [me] back to the moment.”
Exercise is, of course, Wicks’ number one coping strategy when he’s in a funk, and he’s become more vocal in the last couple of years about the mental benefits of his trademark HIIT workouts.
“People came to me originally if they wanted to lose weight, or they want to change their body,” says the man known as The Body Coach on Instagram, where he has 4.3m followers.
“But the thing that keeps them coming back is really their mood, their mental health, how exercise changes their relationships, and how they feel about themselves. [In the past] I think that I wouldn’t have had the confidence or the knowledge to share about mental health.”
That’s also why his latest book, Feel Good Food, highlights the link between diet and mood. It recommends seven building blocks for a healthy diet, including ‘eat more plants’ and ‘minimise ultra-processed foods’.
“Some people think, ‘If I exercise, I can eat what I want, it won’t make a difference’, but it does really make a difference. If you’re exercising, but you’re putting really heavily processed or junk food in your body, then you’re going to find it hard to feel that energy and happiness you get from a healthy diet.”
It’s a message he wants to pass on to Indie and Marley as they grow up (“I do believe the most powerful thing you can do as a parent is exercise with your kids and cook with your kids”), which means fun in the kitchen and meals enjoyed together – a distinct contrast to his own childhood.
“My mealtimes were sandwiches and frozen meals thrown in the oven, then you’d come back, sit at the table or quickly eat and go to your room, or take it to your bedroom,” says Wicks, who has spoken about his father Gary’s heroin addiction, and his mother Raquela’s struggles with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and eating disorders.
“So now I really appreciate that family time. I think it’s wonderful to sit down and talk for five minutes and say, ‘How was your day?’,” he adds.
Wicks remains close to his parents, and his admiration for them is obvious. “My mum, she had eating disorders as a young adult, she was basically anorexic and bulimic at times. She’s amazing now. She cooks, she loves my recipe books. She’s got all of them, bless her, on the shelf, I’m so proud of her,” he says.
“I think that my adventure into food and mental health probably helped with my mum and dad – they do the workouts, my mum’s got a Peloton.”
Their family will be the focus of a forthcoming documentary fronted by Wicks and produced by Louis Theroux, who he became friends with during lockdown – and who went viral with a topless, post-Joe Wicks workout selfie he shared at the end of last year.
“I found out he was doing my workouts, which I loved,” says Wicks. “I’m a big fan, I’ve always loved his documentaries. He came to my house and we watched it together for the first time and I was sitting there like, ‘This is Louis Theroux sitting on my sofa’ – it’s really weird!”
Revisiting the tumultuous years of his youth was, he admits, a challenge: “I was interviewing my parents and going back into my childhood a little bit, so I found it difficult. I’m glad it’s done, it was hard at the time.”
He hopes when the film is released later this year, it will strike a chord with viewers and continue his mental wellbeing message. “It’s not a sensationalist thing,” he adds. “It’s a really open and raw documentary about parental mental health, so I’m hoping it really helps people.”
Feel Good Food by Joe Wicks is published by HQ, priced £20. Photography by Dan Jones. Available March 17.
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