Joe Wicks: 'Fitness can be therapy for kids'

Visiting schools around Ireland to do workouts with kids, fitness coach Joe Wicks talks to Caroline Hennessy about how parents can be positive role models for their children 
Joe Wicks: 'Fitness can be therapy for kids'

Joe Wicks: "If I didn’t have PE at school as a kid, I didn’t think I could have coped, I would have been overwhelmed"

“As parents, we really have to acknowledge and accept our responsibility. We have to work to be the role models. We have to move ourselves and encourage our kids to move.”

British fitness coach Joe Wicks, a man on a mission to get people moving, recently visited primary schools across Ireland. 

When I spoke with him in Limerick last month, just after he completed day three of his four-day tour, he was delighted with the response he was getting from the children. 

“It’s been amazing,” he says. “We’re visiting ten schools over four days. We started in Belfast, on to Galway and Limerick and then we’re finishing in Dublin.”

He’s meeting children of a certain age who will forever associate Wicks with those long lockdown days during the pandemic. 

PE with Joe started in March 2020, just after schools worldwide shut down, with Wicks hosting daily workouts for children on his popular YouTube channel - that first video has 7.9m views - from Monday to Friday while the schools were closed. 

He continued until June, posting almost 80 classes and giving work-from-home parents something to do with their kids before they got stuck into endless Zoom calls.

Starting his career as a personal trainer in 2011, Wicks’ star started ascending when the healthy 15-second recipe videos he was posting on social media became popular. 

His first collection of recipes and workouts, the best-selling Lean in 15, came out in 2015. 

Since then, he’s released another 11 books — the most recent of which is Feel Good Food— has amassed millions of followers on Instagram and YouTube and manages a popular subscription app called The Body Coach.

He also has a heartfelt passion for communicating the benefits of exercise to children. Wicks understands this from personal experience. 

“When I was a child, I grew up in a household where my dad was a heroin addict, and my mum had severe mental health issues - anxiety and eating disorders. If I didn’t have PE at school as a kid, I didn’t think I could have coped, I would have been overwhelmed,” he says. “I was too little and couldn’t talk to anybody about it, but exercise, PE, and sport fundamentally saved me and changed my life.”

A World Health Organization (WHO) report in 2021 noted that the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the pandemic. 

“It’s been hard,” says Wicks. “Now more parents than ever are experiencing mental health issues and young children have anxiety and depression. [Exercise] is very important. It’s not just in the schools. It’s not just on teachers. It’s a parent thing, it’s a family thing. We’ve got to work together to keep kids active because if we don’t, they’re going to really struggle through life.”

Joe Wicks: "I don’t want to make [kids] feel like they’re failures for not having a healthy diet."
Joe Wicks: "I don’t want to make [kids] feel like they’re failures for not having a healthy diet."

When Wicks does his school visits, he tries to get this message across to children: “I ask the kids, how do you feel at the start of the workout? Are you tired or angry? Are you stressed out? Are you worrying about something? Then I ask them again at the end of the workout, and they all say, ‘I’m feeling happier!’ They’re more energised. This is a seed that I’m planting in their minds, that you need this for your mental health.”

He’s keenly aware of children who are experiencing difficulties at home. “I care about it because I was one of those children. I grew up in that house and it was chaos. Fitness and sport were my release. That was my therapy. So I want parents and teachers to see that, believe it, and get on board. Adults are the role models for children and we have to demonstrate it.”

The Q&As with kids that follow the workouts give Wicks the opportunity to include some advice on food, but he’s careful about how he phrases it. 

“I don’t criticise nutrition,” he says, knowing that sometimes children don’t have access to nutritious food at home. 

“When they do ask me questions like what’s your favourite breakfast? What’s the healthiest thing to eat? What’s your diet like? I give them little nuggets of information. I don’t want to make them feel like they’re failures for not having a healthy diet. But I do say, how about having porridge for breakfast instead of Coco Pops, or having a piece of apple instead of a bag of crisps for lunch.”

These straightforward ideas can have a positive effect, especially if they’re coming from someone influential like Wicks. “They’re just simple swops they can achieve,” he says. “A little impact every day, and that adds up.

“I think the most important thing as a parent that we can give to our kids is role modelling cooking and helping them enjoy food and the process of learning about nutrition,” he says.

The second thing is movement. “You don’t have to tell your children to do intense workouts at home on their own, but you can do fun activities together, get out into nature and go down to the park.

It’s something that he does frequently with his own children, five-year-old Indie, Marley, who is three, and Leni, one: “I take the [older] kids out on little walks and say ‘let’s try and run 500 meters or let’s run around the block.’

“Last weekend I took them to a junior park run and we ran one lap — just a kilometre, they didn’t have it in them to go further than that, but we celebrated like they just won an Olympic medal.

“If you make children feel that they’ve achieved something and make them feel proud, they’ll want to do it again,” says Wicks.

But they can’t do it on their own. “I have to be the one getting up, driving down there, and running around that park with them. If I weren’t there, they wouldn’t be there. I’m role modelling for them.”

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