Joe Wicks, 34, the nation’s go-to body coach during the pandemic kept millions on their toes and raised £580,000 for the NHS (PE with Joe on YouTube ran most weekdays between March 2020 and March 2021). Later this month he launches The Workout Badges, a series of short, energetic workouts for preschoolers on YouTube, in collaboration with Hey Duggee (BBC iPlayer’s most watched children’s show last year). As part of his same drive to inspire children to exercise, Wicks is bringing out, with the writer Vivian French and illustrator Paul Howard, a picture book, The Burpee Bears, on 30 September.
Were your own kids an inspiration for your new series?
Massively – I’m always exercising in front of them, although my little boy, Marley, is only 18 months old. I also have a three-year-old girl, Indie, and love it when she copies me… The other day we were doing The Workout Badges, and she said: “Dad, you’ve got to keep going because if you stop, you won’t get your badge!” My passion is with helping young people – through exercise – to change the way they feel.
You involve able and disabled kids on your show, and are inspiring to all. Was it fun to make?
I love being playful. Exercise doesn’t have to be serious. But it was very tiring making the series because of Covid. I had to film with each child separately because of social distancing rules.
When I was a child I couldn’t touch my toes (still can’t). What advice would you have given me?
The message with children always has to be: “Do your best. If you can’t do it perfectly, have a try.” Don’t judge yourself. Don’t compare yourself.
Have you ever been unfit?
I’ve never been overweight. I was a skinny child who loved PE and sport. I used exercise as a coping mechanism…
Your father was a heroin addict. That must have been so hard…
It shaped me. I’ve never been depressed, except as a teenager when Dad was relapsing every other month – it was quite emotional. Dad struggled with his addiction so couldn’t be there all the time for me. It’s made me want to be there for my children. It’s helped me become a better husband and father. As an adult I’m more compassionate about my dad [recovered now] than I was as a teenager. We have a good relationship [today]. I didn’t realise that both my parents had severe mental health issues. My mum had eating disorders and OCD – I’d thought she just loved cleaning her house four times a day.
Would you say you had any addictive traits yourself?
I used to think if I tried drugs, I’d become an addict. It frightened me. I suppose I am addicted to social media… and to helping people. I’m very purpose-driven and get a buzz out of that. I’m obsessed with doing more content, more videos, going to other countries.
Your diet must have been transformed since childhood?
I had a really unhealthy diet. My mum had me at 19 and didn’t know how to cook. Junk food was all she knew. She used to go to Iceland where there were lots of buy-one-get-one-free offers. I got into cooking at university. I’m still very greedy. I love chocolate and ice-cream. I eat way more than any average person, but because I exercise five to six days a week I get away with it.
How much do you think about this country’s obesity crisis?
I used to, but now I think more about the mental health crisis. I used to focus on physical transformation – leanness, body shape. But during the pandemic I realised that it’s with mental health that people need help and motivation. Without a healthy mindset and the energy you get from exercise, life feels a lot harder. If you look at exercise from a mental health perspective, the body will follow.
And is your new picture book about that?
It’s an uplifting story about a bear family who go on a wonderful day out in the woods. It’s about getting active and having fun (and getting caught in the rain)…
The healthy recipes you publish on Instagram and elsewhere are always quick. Why the hurry?
I became successful because my workouts were 20 minutes long and my recipes 15 minutes. I wanted to show people that they can lead a healthy life with minimal effort.
Have you ever burned out?
Most recently, yes. I did the lockdown [workout] stuff, fine. Then I did two podcast series and filmed a documentary about my childhood with Louis Theroux’s production company. By the end, I was so emotionally drained I felt I’d nothing more to give.
Do you need a rest from social media…?
There are days when it wears me down, not so much my posts as messages from people who are struggling. I try to reply. I’m constantly giving out energy. But I can put my phone away. The first few hours I’ll miss it, but as each hour passes I feel lighter: I’m not in demand, no one can reach me… it’s a nice feeling.
Has getting married and having kids changed you?
My family has brought me contentment, confidence and security. Whatever happens from this point on, even if I’m not relevant or popular I’ve got my family, so everything will be fine.
Your favourite way of relaxing?
Going out on my motorbike (a Triumph Bobber). Or taking the kids to Richmond Park or Virginia Water Lake. My garden is a little sanctuary. I’ve got an ice machine, a metal bath I fill from the hose and then I throw in lots of ice. I’ll lie in there for four or five minutes and it’s amazing. Nothing brings you more into the moment than freezing water.
Don’t you ever feel tempted just to stay in bed?
I do have days when I do emotional eating and sit on the sofa. But I love those days. I don’t feel ashamed. I’ll think: that’s just one day. I don’t let it drag on. I know life is better with good sleep, good food and movement: I’ll get up, have a workout, get back into the mindset.
The Burpee Bears by Joe Wicks is published by HarperCollins (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply