Joe Wicks: ‘The winter is going to hit our children's mental health hard’

Maria Lally
·6 min read
Joe Wicks is attempting to work out for 24 hours straight as part of this year’s BBC Children in Need - BBC
Joe Wicks is attempting to work out for 24 hours straight as part of this year’s BBC Children in Need - BBC

After a summer of bouncing happily around our living rooms as the nation’s PE teacher, the eternally chirpy Joe Wicks posted a video on Instagram last month where he spoke about the effect lockdown was having on his mental health.

“I’m finding it hard to be positive,” he told his 3.9 million followers. “I’m finding it confusing. I feel like I can’t even understand, I can’t even comprehend where the end is. That feeling of powerlessness and confusion is quite a hard thing to deal with.”

Speaking on Zoom last week, he told me he started to feel that way after seeing Boris Johnson announce tougher lockdown measures. “I just felt really flat. I couldn’t see a way out of this situation. I missed being able to make plans with my friends, and I felt disconnected and a bit lonely. It resonated with so many people, who got in touch to say they felt the same. Parents messaged me to say they were trying to stay positive for their children, but they felt flat too. And then I thought if this is how I feel, how much of an effect is this having on our children?”

A report by NHS Digital has revealed that two in five children aged 11 to 16 feel the coronavirus lockdown has made their lives worse. And since lockdown, rates of mental health disorder have risen from 11% to 16% in boys, and from 10% to 15% in girls. 

“Lockdown in summer was tough, but winter is going to be even tougher for them,” says Wicks. “It’s going to start getting wet and grim, and families will stay home more. But it’s not just children’s physical health that will suffer; their mental health will too.”

Yesterday morning, it was announced that Wicks is attempting to work out for 24 hours straight as part of this year’s BBC Children in Need. As the charity’s schools ambassador, he will be doing a range of activities from yoga to cycling and his signature HIIT workouts, with celebrity guests – and his wife Rosie and the couple’s two children – Zooming in to offer encouragement, as he aims to raise money for children and young people across the UK who have been disadvantaged by the pandemic.

Wicks’ interest in helping children started back in 2017, when he began live-streaming a series of mini workouts for schoolchildren on his YouTube channel, The Body Coach.

Up until that point, he was a fitness Instagrammer best known for HIIT workouts and accompanying recipe books (he’s written nine books, which combined have sold more than three million copies). But after posting the children’s workouts, he was inundated with messages from teachers and parents who said his workouts were improving their children’s behaviour and concentration in class.

He took his idea – touring schools to highlight the link between physical activity with mental health, much the same as Jamie Oliver did with school meals in 2005 – to Channel 4, which turned it down due to budgeting issues. Wicks was disheartened but decided to do it anyway and after putting a call out online, he toured the UK in a Mini Cooper with his brother and two cameramen, visiting some of the 18,000 schools who applied to take part. Off the back of the tour, BBC Children in Need asked him to be its schools ambassador and he toured UK schools again in 2019.

He was planning a 2020 tour, but then the pandemic hit. So he began live-streaming daily PE lessons the week it was announced the schools were closing and became something of a national treasure – or at least, a lockdown treasure – overnight. Over one million people live-streamed his PE With Joe workouts in March alone.

“This year’s Children in Need feels like a way of bringing all that together for me,” he says. The focus of this year’s campaign, Five to Thrive, is on supporting children and young people’s mental health, and has five themes: Connect (which focuses on the importance of friendship), Take Notice (journaling and being aware of your feelings), Get Active (the link between movement and mood), Be Curious (to try new things), and Give (the effect helping others has on your mood).

Joe Wicks: “When I was growing up, people never spoke to their kids about this stuff” - BBC
Joe Wicks: “When I was growing up, people never spoke to their kids about this stuff” - BBC

In the week leading up to BBC Children in Need’s live show on Friday 13 November, schools will be provided with video content, activities and advice for each theme, from Wicks and experts like Dr Radha Modgil, a GP and mental health specialist.  

“The kids will be taught about things like journaling, a bit of breathing, meditation and being able to communicate how they’re feeling rather than bottling things up,” says Joe, who tells me he does guided meditation most days with the Headspace app.

“When I was growing up, people never spoke to their kids about this stuff, but I think it’s a really nice concept. And after what some of them have suffered in lockdown they need it more than ever,” he adds.

Research by BBC Children in Need recently found that 94 per cent of children and young people have felt sad or anxious since the UK went into lockdown and 45 per cent of families surveyed said their children seem more worried or anxious than they did pre-pandemic.

Joe says that while his own children are very young – daughter Indie is two and son Marley turns one in December – along with his wife Rosie they try to keep them emotionally as well as physically healthy: “We get out in nature every day, whether it’s a walk around our village, a long bike ride, or a little bug hunt in the back garden. Not just for exercise, but to clear their heads,” says Wicks. “We make sure we have phone-free family time every day, where we’re not distracted, and Indie tried Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube the other day. As they grow up I want them to have an emotional vocabulary so they know it’s OK to talk freely about their feelings. Keeping kids mentally fit is as important as keeping them physically fit – this year more than ever.”

On Friday November 13 you can watch Joe’s 24-hour workout live on the Red Button and BBC iPlayer