It seems impossible to dislike Joe Wicks, so I haven’t even bothered to try. Like Russell Brand with all the bad bits removed – that episode of Red Dwarf where the polymorph sucks the bitterness out of Rimmer – he’s so upbeat and enthusiastic that any negativity you might feel about him (for his Jamie Oliver-esque soundbite delivery, say, or his on-every-shelf ubiquity) just bounces off. It’d be like trying to hate a labradoodle: doomed to failure, and you’d end up feeling bad for even attempting it.
Still, some people seem determined to give it a go. Last week, Wicks made the shift from utter dominance of those social channels your nephew understands better than you (Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube) to his own TV show, and suddenly my old-person network (Facebook) was filled with trainers blaming him for not fixing all of the general public’s misconceptions about health in a 36-minute programme.
Leave alone the fact that the government, health industry and TV schedule up to this point have left audiences more informed about mirror-glaze cakes than the four main macronutrients: blame the dude with the Action-Man abs.
Personally, I thought it was probably the best fitness-based TV show I’ve ever seen, but that’s more an indictment of every other fitness-based TV show than a ringing endorsement. The absolute nadir of the genre, for instance, is The Biggest Loser: an embarrassing, exploitative, Schadenfreude-shitshow based on bad exercise principles and even worse science.
Ignore, for instance, the fact that the ‘Losers’ are ranked on weight, not bodyfat – meaning that if they put on muscle throughout the process, they’re in danger of being booted out – or the fact that doing 5k runs and burpees puts a dangerous amount of stress on your joints if you’re morbidly obese.
The fact is, it doesn’t even work. Almost every contestant regains the weight they’ve crash-dieted off, and usually ends up with their metabolism ruined to boot. There’s a reason they don’t do reunion specials.
Slightly up the scale come the look-at-the-funny-fat-people antics of shows like Supersize Vs Superskinny, Weighing Up The Enemy and Secret Eaters. There’s nothing show-breakingly bad about any of them, but they all suffer from the same malady of presenting most of the exercise and nutrition ‘science’ as uncritically as an eight-year-old writing about what he did on his holidays.
Imagine if 5Live replaced Mark Kermode with a man who’d never seen a film, or Mary Berry stepped down in favour of someone who’d never eaten a Jaffa Cake: that’s what it’s like watching a Channel 4 presenter ‘reviewing’ a kettlebell class.
“The nice man who runs it says it burns 1,000 calories an hour,” comes the voiceover, neglecting the fact that you’d need to work constantly, with a kettlebell the size of a cannonball, for that to be true. “And it’ll build abs, fix your posture, and give you a bikini bottom. It’s definitely the best fitness thing! At least, that’s what I’ll assume, with no way to contextualise the information I’m being given.”
Meanwhile, C4’s short-lived Fat Fighters did slightly better on the exercise-science front, but much, much worse by including a dominatrix and one of the cast of Mad Max 2 in its lineup of trainers. I’d have been scared to go to the classes in Fat Fighters, and I’ve done competitions where the events included ‘lift up a car a whole bunch of times.’ Shock and awe might make for good TV, but it isn’t going to help the general public get in shape.
And then there’s Wicks. The man who’s persuaded half the country to refer to broccoli as ‘midget trees’ isn’t covering quite the same ground as his predecessors, since he’s not pushing extreme shifts in behaviour or working with people so out of shape that viewers can shove them into the mental folder marked. “Well, at least I don’t do that.”
Plenty of his suggestions (ignoring scale weight, focusing on good fats, making exercise simple and regular) are good, even if others (doing high intensity workouts pretty much exclusively, prepping all your meals until you get bored of prepping all your meals) offer an oversimplified version of what really works.
What all these shows have in common, though – and what even Wicks does a bit – is making fitness look like an all-or-nothing transition, a fundamental life-shift rather than something you could just do a bit more of. There’s very little education involved: very little discussion of how to incorporate moderate activity into everyday life and structure your own exercise plan, or how to make smart food choices at a restaurant or a service station on the M25.
But then, TV’s always been better at boombastics than the basics: that’s why Top Gear doesn’t remind you how to change a tyre every couple of episodes, and why everyone in the country watches Bake Off but nobody actually knows how to cook a flan.
Big life changes are exciting: small, sustainable stuff is boring. Above all, TV just can’t do instructional stuff very well: but that’s okay, because YouTube, Instagram and any number of Internet channels you haven’t heard of yet do it better. And in the kingdom of social media content, Joe Wicks reigns supreme. Good job he’s so damn nice.