17 April 2020

‘I don’t do self-care for the bubble baths’

He trains Virgil Abloh, runs a ‘plant-based gang’ and takes a refreshing stand against the modern wellness industry – despite being one of its most important players.

 

Joe Holder sighs without restraint before letting out a big, exasperated laugh. Then he says carefully: ‘You’re really trying to get me into trouble…’ The fitness and wellness consultant with a body that appears to be chiseled from marble, trainer to Naomi Campbell and Virgil Abloh, has just been asked what he thinks about Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and some of the other new wellness and lifestyle companies.

‘Let’s be honest,’ says Holder. ‘Why are so many people interested in wellness right now? People haven’t suddenly woken up and said out of nowhere, “Yo, I’m gonna start taking better care of myself now”. I think it’s more to do with the fact that a whole bunch of money has been poured into an industry that’s pushing a certain message.’

A ‘whole bunch of money’ is an understatement: our cultural obsession with health and wellness has seen it grow into an industry worth $4.2 trillion globally. And it’s an industry Holder is tapping into. But despite the ‘luxury’ side of wellness forming a large chunk of his income, the 30-year-old is working to change the idea that health isn’t something everyone should be able to afford or is something that can even be paid for.

His celebrity personal trainer status, new regular column for American GQ and ongoing projects with brands like Nike, smartwater and Dyson, have given him a platform to reposition the way we currently view health and wellness as a luxury commodity. ‘A lot of people in my position with large followings on social media – although I don’t push it nearly as hard as the gymfluencers – want to watch their money stack up, put out their discount codes and look good on Instagram. But I was raised different. I don’t do self-care for the bubble baths.’

Taking time out from all the noise and distractions of daily life to relax, doing whatever it takes to make you feel less stressed, is becoming increasingly difficult. ‘People are more interested in wellness, but that doesn’t mean more people understand what it is or how to achieve it. Because you have so many voices shouting into the abyss, things have got a lot more muddled.’

So much of new age wellness, he explains, takes basic ancient principles and finds ways of selling products via them. ‘Look at it through the concept of art,’ he says. ‘You strip away everything that isn’t needed to produce the greatest. You don’t add a block of marble to a block of marble. But now that we live in such product-centric times, we think “I need this. I need that.” You have to look at the information being put out there.

‘But I’m sure Goop has helped a lot of people,’ he continues. ‘And if people want to spend a lot of money on that stuff, good for them. I’m not going to worry about it or criticise them so long as Goop or whoever aren’t putting out harmful dialogue. I prefer to concentrate on the information I can put out. I’m not going to take a torch to something that isn’t going to burn down. I also want to give people something to believe in rather than telling them to change their minds.’ Which he does through his Instagram account (@ochosystem, with 104,000 followers and counting), community events and training sessions.

The Ocho System

The Ocho System doesn’t refer to the number of ridges in Holder’s eight-pack; it’s an acronym for ‘One can help others and others can help one’. Holder started the company while he was at the University of Pennsylvania, when his career as an Ivy League American football player was cut short due to injury.

In 2010, he hurt his ankle. Doctors said it wasn’t anything major but his body took a long time to recover. Shortly after he returned to the playing field, he broke his leg. ‘Only then did I start listening to myself and my body, and landed on this system.’ He was back playing within four weeks – ‘The body can do a lot more than we think it can,’ he says – but he had already decided to commit full time to developing his new company.

Put simply, Holder believes that by regaining control over our physical health, we’re better able to take care of our mental and spiritual health. ‘Wellness has to take in emotional, mental and social factors,’ he says. The final result being that we’re all in better shape to take care of the people around us.

He believes the idea of slogging it out at the gym is dysfunctional – just focus on doing a little bit every day, ‘utter exhaustion isn’t good’. Only try new things to see if they actually work – ‘We’ve been conditioned to bounce from new idea to new idea without committing enough time to see if something is already working.’ And it’s often best to go back to basics anyway: ‘Increase the hours of sleep you get and drink more water; you don’t need to spend money on fancy treatments.’

Plant Based Gang

Food is also central to Holder’s concept of modern wellness. He adopted a plant based diet five years ago – ‘Before it was a thing’. In 2017, he started Plant Based Gang, a ‘fun little philosophy’ and brand selling hoodies, shopping baskets and t-shirts. The overall aim is to help consumers understand the lifestyle of plant-based eating because, like what has happened with wellness, he says, ‘the definition has been co-opted’. For example, the kinds of ‘bleeding’ veggie burgers that have become a popular alternative to traditional meat patties at fast-casual restaurants ‘aren’t healthy; they’re highly-processed foods. And all these shitty snack foods that claim they’re plant based: no thank you.’

His challenge has been to try and reverse-engineer all the new misconceptions. Like becoming vegetarian or vegan: ‘I don’t believe they’re the healthiest diets.’ Or like eating meat: ‘It’s not for me, but meat isn’t the problem. I don’t care if you eat meat, it’s actually a very nutrient dense food.’The problem is the agricultural system in which it exists. ‘Beyond Meat or Impossible Burgers might be important in terms of reducing the environmental impact that meat has, but they are not healthy or nutritiously dense foods by any means. And look at the companies investing in these brands. Hold up, let’s not miss the forest from the trees.’

‘Heaven on earth’

Holder is in a unique position to talk about modern wellness. ‘I had a 10-year head start,’ he says, pointing to an early job he had for a health food startup (since bought by Pepsi Co) that sold all-things-chia. He helped ‘hustle’ the brand into supermarkets and get better shelf placement at a time when ‘nobody knew what chia was’. But his head start goes back much further. He grew up in a suburb of New Jersey, ‘on the border of a shitty neighbourhood with a well-o one’. His father is a doctor, who practiced preventative and holistic medicinal care in a clinic attached to the family home. His mother is an immigrant from Trinidad who grew wheatgrass, made smoothies and raised her seven children on organic food. 

‘New Jersey is probably one of the biggest pharmaceutical capitals in the world,’ says Holder, ‘yet here was my dad, using alternative medicines. But living there wasn’t by accident. Nor was living next to a shitty neighbourhood an accident.’

His mum ‘taught us how to compost. She always juiced for us. With my dad, we’d drive our van to supermarkets, pick up everything they threw away each week and go distribute it to hungry people. This was way before food banks were around. It’s crazy, really. I guess I’m just a manifestation of all the things they taught me: to care for other people and myself, and to remember I’m not the only person in this world.’

In many ways, in fact, Holder has been thinking about wellness since the day he was born. ‘I was a very premature kid,’ he explains. ‘Any other period of time, I’d be dead. So I never take good health for granted. I’m living in heaven on earth. ’

With all of his training commitments and projects with brands that sees him frequently crisscrossing the US, is it becoming harder to apply his own high standards of wellness to himself? ‘Sometimes, for sure,’ he says, pausing for thought.

But although I work hard, I’m strategically lazy. I don’t do anything that doesn’t make sense to me. And I make sure I take care of myself because it’s a revolutionary act and a means of survival. And the world right now is fighting for survival. So if you aren’t ready to pick up that charge, what are you really doing?’

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