'I’m 100% addicted to social media,' admits Joe Wicks aka The Body Coach. 'I am conscious of it and trying to make some changes, but it's
the world we live in.’
When you consider Wicks' astonishing rise from struggling personal trainer only five years ago to fitness guru, multi-million best-selling
author and social media superstar, it seems a small price to pay. Wicks has sold over three million healthy-eating books in the UK, including
Lean in 15 - The Shift Plan, which is Britain's second best-selling cookbook of all time. His new book, Veggie Lean in 15, became a bestseller
very quickly after its launch, reaching number one in the book charts.
Six months ago, he became a dad, which has thrown him a curveball, though not in the way you might think. His daughter doesn't keep
him up all night or have him reaching for the biscuit tin in the morning – she sleeps well, apparently, and is a very calm baby – but her
existence has made him rethink how much time he spends online.
‘We don’t have that free time to relax anymore,’ sighs Wicks, sounding genuinely worried about this modern conundrum. ‘When
you’re on the sofa or brushing your teeth, you’re looking at your phone – we constantly fill that void with Instagram and WhatsApp.’
Wicks loves his 2.4 million Instagram followers, but this doesn’t stop him feeling uneasy. ‘It’s really motivating when I see that people
are trying my recipes and workouts and it’s making a difference,’ he says. ‘I love all the messages I get... I’m so immersed in what
I’m doing. But with my daughter, I want to be present. I've been trying to leave my phone upstairs. But then I’ll be playing with her
downstairs and she’ll do something really cute and I’ll want to share it. ‘I know I can’t keep doing that. I need to enjoy the moment
and forget about seeing the world as content for my feed.’
He also wants to set a good example. He’s not keen on baby Indie becoming one of those babies that can use an iPhone before they
can walk: ‘I want her to have lots of family time and do creative stuff.’ Like many of us, Wicks is conflicted about his relationship
with technology, but he also owes it his career.
In 2014, he opened a Twitter account and started posting recipes on Instagram. A year later, he had half a million followers and a
publisher signing him up.
He credits his success to his unintimidating, upbeat cooking style – he’s on first name terms with ingredients – ‘Terry the tuna’ is one such
example – which gets people into the kitchen, often for the first time. Enviable abs and photogenic curls can’t hurt.
He has been rated the second most influential foodie person in the UK, while also single-handedly boosting UK sales of broccoli – which
he likes to call ‘midget trees’.
His mission this year is to tackle childhood obesity by getting schools to do more sport. ‘I want to do what Jamie Oliver did with school
dinners but for fitness,’ he explains. ‘Things really need a shake-up. There’s lots of healthy living initiatives but kids aren’t engaged
with them. I want to go into schools to find out why exercise isn’t always compulsory and why some schools have no PE teachers.’
Wicks started his working life in a school, but he didn’t enjoy it. ‘It’s a tough job,’ he says of his stint as a PE assistant in west London.
‘The school had some kids who were going through a tough time and it was really challenging. I wasn’t cut out for it.’ But he’s ready
for his classroom comeback and has already involved hundreds of thousands of primary school children in YouTube workouts, designed
to be done in 15 minutes in a school gym. ‘Kids are already on YouTube – they love it – so why not get them exercising on it too?’ he says.
He believes exercise, not telling children what they can and cannot eat, is the way forward -- ‘it’s difficult to criticise how children eat, but
you can encourage them to get more active. That way, they’ll start to become more aware of nutrition.’
Wicks is the first to admit that he didn’t have a healthy upbringing himself, eating ‘loads of crisps and sweets’. But this journey from junk
food lover to health hero makes him even more relatable.
These days, when he hits the ice cream, he regrets it the next day. ‘Over Christmas, I ate loads of junk food, but I always feel rough
afterwards - I don’t want to exercise and it affects my mood,’ he says.
‘For me, a little blow out now and again reminds me why I want to cook food and eat healthily. You can be so much more productive and
happier when you’re eating well.’ With his daughter, he’s keen to steer her away from fizzy drinks, but doesn’t want to be too strict.
‘I don’t want her to have any issues around food – I want her to enjoy her food,’ he says. ‘I don’t want her relying on sugar all the time, but
I’m not going to give her a hard time if she wants a brownie. You’ve got to be realistic.’ Perhaps it’s also this attitude – forgiving people
when they dodge a workout or cave in to junk food – that has made Wicks so successful.
He admits he doesn’t like coming across as preachy, that’s not what he’s about. It’s one reason it has taken him until now to get onboard
with current environmental debates about food. ‘There’s so much more information out there now about the impact of meat eating on the
environment and animals and plastic pollution. A few years ago, I didn’t really know or care about these things,’ he admits. ‘I’ve got a few
friends that are veggie and vegan and they’ve always pointed out that I influence a lot of people to try new things and that I should use this
in a positive way.’
But Wicks wasn’t ready to take this on board until recently when he watched the Netflix documentary A Plastic Ocean – ‘it really shocked
me. I didn’t realise how bad the situation was.’
Writing his new veggie cookbook has encouraged Wicks to eat less meat and not focus on protein so much. His favourite vegan meals are
the sweet potato and kale curry and the curried root veg pie from his new book. ‘These are lovely, warm and filling meals you can rely on,
rather than just salads and grain type dishes. You want that variety,’ he says. ‘I used to think you couldn’t get enough protein if you were a
veggie; you’re not going to build muscle. That was from reading lots of fitness magazines about body-building, but now I know you can –
you’ve just got to be smart about how you combine things, eating lots of nuts, grains and pulses.’
His diet is now around 50 to 60 percent vegetarian, but he won’t be going vegan anytime soon. ‘I love burgers too much,’ he sighs. ‘And I
love butter and cheese and eggs. One day, I might try a few vegan days a week, but now it’s too much of a leap.’ What he hopes is that
his followers will be inspired by his own gradual journey away from eating meat every day, whether it’s for health reasons or
Wicks knows he’s in a position where he can influence people – ‘getting them to choose loose avocados not packaged ones or picking up
some plastic on the beach’ he says as examples – but more importantly, he has decided to act on it. ‘Even if I just inspire a couple of people
to make these changes, it’s worth doing,’ he adds. Given his track record, there’s a good chance he’ll motivate a few more than that.
Interview by Anna Shepard
A shorter version of this interview appeared in Waitrose & Partners Weekend, 24 January 2019