Greg Bruce spent four months working out with one of the fitness world's biggest stars. Here's what happened.
On the third day of the first lockdown in March, my brother-in-law posted a link on the family WhatsApp featuring a YouTube link titled simply: "PE with Joe." There was no accompanying message. I didn't bother opening it: The term "PE" was infantilising and the name "Joe" uninspiring. That only left "with".
The next day Zanna suggested we try it. I was broadly against it but apathetically so, and I'm easily persuaded. My first impressions were that it was nothing special: a guy in his London living room with anachronistic hair and the physique of a soccer player leading us through a quite intense half-hour workout. Nothing about it suggested what it had just become: the most popular fitness live stream in history, as documented by Guinness World Records.
The workout was made up of short bursts of intense exercise interspersed with rest periods - what's known as high intensity interval training or HIIT. We did that day's workout and every subsequent one, every weekday until its finish a few weeks ago - nearly 70 workouts over four months. We never even considered missing one.
The kids rarely took part after the novelty wore off, minutes into the first workout. They would lie underneath us while we tried to plank, jump on our backs when we tried to do push-ups, walk behind us and be knocked over when we were doing burpees. They never seemed to learn. Dogs would pick this stuff up immediately, I thought, so why don't my children? Has humanity overestimated itself? Or is this a specifically genetic failing?
Casper (3) started using our distraction as an opportunity to eat things he isn't allowed. He would run out of the living room and, if we made eye contact, would scream, "Don't look at me!" Then we'd hear the stool scraping across the kitchen floor towards the pantry, followed by a pause, followed by footsteps re-entering the lounge and disappearing behind a distant curtain, where we'd later find empty packages and other traces of illicit eating.
The live streams were watched by hundreds of thousands of people and millions more in the hours and days after: "How many live streams we got today, Nikki?!" Joe would yell every day at his brother, who was in a bunker somewhere, speaking to Joe through an earpiece. No matter the number, which declined steadily from nearly a million to about 100,000 by the end, Joe was always amazed and thankful and full of joy. He was a relentlessly upbeat presence in relentlessly downbeat times.
He appeared in our house at the same time every morning, with his shout-outs and happy bluster, a reassuring voice, someone we could rely on at a time reliability was hard to find.
I MADE up a song. I sang it each day before the workout and increasingly at other times throughout the day too:
PE with Joe time
PE with Joe
It's time to hit go
On PE with Joe
It was a good song. It caught on. I'll never forget the time I first overheard Tallulah (6) singing it quietly to herself. For those few months, it became like a soundtrack to our lives.
HE EASED us towards the end, as if taking us carefully down through the alert levels. First he went from five days a week to three, then gave long notice of his impending permanent cessation.
A few weeks ago, at 6.45am, we gathered for the last ever workout. By that point, it was so much a part of our lives that I knew, at least for our 5 and 6-year-olds, it would be something they would remember forever, a subject of discussion with their spouses and our grandchildren at future family gatherings in The Ark: "During the time of the First Great Sickness," they would say, "Mum and Dad used to make us do these workouts …" Their eyes would mist but they would not cry: the extreme heat and atmospheric gases would make it impossible.
"WHAT'S THE appeal of this guy?" I asked Zanna over and over during the early workouts. Some possible answers: he's a hunk, a goofball, an everyman, a family man. His tops were tight and his body V-shaped, and his fluffy hair was at least 12 years out of date. He had an adorable toddler and baby who each made intermittent appearances, sometimes in preposterously cute costumes. He found the exercises hard - or at least pretended to. He appeared astonished by his popularity.
The most obvious way to counter uncertainty is with certainty. Knowing someone will be there for you at the same time every day, offering you comfort, no matter how you're feeling: that felt nice too.
These are all good points but they're not necessarily answers. In the midst of this pandemic with its maelstrom of published and broadcast human thoughts - so many of them self-righteously misinformed, stupid and dangerous - it's worth remembering we are more than just beings that overestimate our ability to reason.
In lockdown, away from so many of the things and people that make up your life, it's easy to lose your sense of place in the world - to feel you're fading out, a la Marty McFly at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. We exist first and foremost physically. The ache in my quads and glutes brought on by PE with Joe reminded me of that fact. It reassured me I was not calcifying; it demonstrated to me that I was not lurching aimlessly unto death.
After four months of daily workouts with Joe, I didn't know anything about his political leanings, economic ideologies or his reckons on the best way to deal with Covid-19. What I did know was that his workouts were hard and that once I'd finished them I felt good and that they helped me stay out of my head, a place where - this year more than ever - I've spent far too much time.