“Before lockdown, I basically did no exercise, nothing whatsoever,” says Vanessa Taylor, from Rochdale, Greater Manchester. “Now, I do it every day apart from Sunday.”
The change has been Joe Wicks, she says – the fitness coach who’s become a household name for the free workouts he has live streamed every weekday during the coronavirus lockdown. They were scaled back last month and now, after nearly four months, the workouts are set to end on Wednesday.
“He’s changed so many lives for the better,” says Vanessa, 45, who started the workouts with her family. The children quickly got fed up, but she continued and lost weight.
“It’s absolutely brilliant. From day one, I have just kept going.”
Above all, Vanessa praises the mental health benefits, and says it has helped her after the death of her mum. “It’s something to focus on,” she says. “I’m gutted tomorrow is the last day. When everything goes back to normal I’m going to keep going because I feel physically and mentally better for it.”
Wicks’ first workout began in late March, just hours before Boris Johnson went on to tell the UK it was entering lockdown. Schools had already closed and the sessions were billed as “PE with Joe”.
The following day, his second video was watched by nearly one million people, breaking a world record.
“It’s not just for the kids,” says Irene Santineer, 54, from Maidstone, Kent. “It’s been life changing in a lot of ways.”
Irene missed the first week of workouts – but was inspired by her twin Angela, who lives hundreds of miles away in Crieff, in Perth and Kinross. “She’s been doing it from day one,” says Irene. “It’s been a fantastic way for us to stay accountable to each other and re-measure our fitness. And there’s a little bit of a competition going on.”
Irene does the workouts in the morning – often at 5am before going to work in a school. “It makes me feel so good,” she says. “I don’t always want to do it. It just gives me an energy boost and endorphins.
“He’s got such an infectious personality that comes out in it.”
The feel-good factor is also the main benefit for her, she says – but she is also fitter.
“I can see the difference. I’m stronger, I can walk up a hill and not get out of breath, my husband has noticed how much better my fitness levels are.”
Wicks’ fans are devoted: he says he’s received piles of letters and there have been repeated calls for him to be knighted or be made the BBC’s next Sports Personality of the Year.
And although the workouts were aimed at children while they were not able to go to school during lockdown, the workouts have been done by people of all ages.
At Longmoor Lodge Care Home in Nottingham, 79-year-old resident John was filmed taking part. “He didn’t need any persuading,” home manager Barbara Parkinson says. “He just stood up and he even kind of took the lead.”
Joe Wicks’ workout was put on in the home’s newly-installed smart TV – attracting the attention of the staff and the residents.
“They do the chair-based exercises but they can be quite boring, so having something different and the staff taking part… Suddenly the frailest of people that you see are doing these exercises. It was just fantastic. It did their well-being a world of good.”
Meanwhile, Romsey Primary School near Southampton is just one of the many schools that have used Wicks’ workouts during the lockdown. “It’s brilliant,” says Year One teacher Faye Hill.
“Some of them are doing full press ups. I think it’s good for stamina, focus and it’s brought a sense of fun into the classroom. It’s made the transition into full-time easier.”
Kerry Finley, 41, from Manchester says the daily videos helped her manage her anxiety during lockdown.
“On those days I don’t want to get out of bed, at nine o’clock I have to get downstairs. It motivates me to start the day.”
Although her children no longer take part in the full workouts, they still look out for their favourite moves and the non-physical parts. “It’s nice as it gives us something you can all do and all access. It doesn’t discriminate. You can do as much or as little as you like.”
Wicks’ daily workouts – along with the phrase “infectious personality” – have been mentioned repeatedly to researcher Dr Victoria Goodyear, who has been carrying out a national survey about how the lockdown has influenced young people’s activity and wellbeing.
“The main thing is it’s accessible, it’s free, it’s in short bite-size chunks,” says Dr Goodyear, from the University of Birmingham, explaining why videos such as Wicks’ have become so popular.
She adds Wicks’ videos are very polished, but also portray his personality. “Because of that warmness, it reduced feelings of isolation, and he provided a personal touch that was engaging.
“It also prompted people who were inactive before to take part, and for some of those who are already active, to try a different type of activity.”
Wicks has been dubbed the nation’s PE teacher – and praised for getting so many people into high-intensity interval training, a type of cardio exercise that focuses on short bursts of intense activity.
But some academics from the University of Loughborough are concerned that physical education is different to physical activity and people shouldn’t think a high-profile fitness trainer could replace a PE teacher.
“Whilst Joe Wicks was brilliant in getting young people into physical activity at the time of lockdown, that can be a great thing and great in terms of mental health. But we don’t think it’s PE,” says Dr Julie Stirrup.
“We don’t want people to see PE as just watching Joe Wicks,” she says. “PE is much more.” She says PE develops broad skills and competence.
Many of Wicks’ fans are simply grateful for his sessions.
“I just think if he’s reading the article, it’s just a big thank you to what he’s done,” says Kerry. “He’s done it for months and months and he didn’t have to. He’s helped people cope with the lockdown.”