Interview

James Duigan: why it's time to put mind over muscle

January 5th 2018 / Susannah Taylor / 0 comment

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He's the creator of Bodyism, where some of the world's most famous names go to get in shape, and believes that kindness, compassion and respect - not beasting yourself in the gym - are the key to a healthier you

It’s this time of year, post Quality Street, mulled wine and mince pie overload, that we generally thrust our bodies onto that treadmill, beast ourselves in HIIT classes and cut out food groups in a bid to lose the festive inch. And more often than not, this leaves us murderously ‘hangry’ (hungry + angry) and downright depressed. Sound familiar?

This year, what if you looked at health in a different way? What if the key to getting healthy and staying that way was not about the body, but putting your mind, first? James Duigan, age 43, is the owner of Bodyism where actors, athletes and royalty come to get healthy. The godfather of clean eating (he coined the words ‘clean eating’ way before it became a dirty phrase), James's Clean and Lean health books are still, in my mind, the most simple yet educational health books on the market. With Bodyism gyms around the world from London to the Maldives, a supplements range and a sportswear line, James is also a huge believer in the fact that if you get your head straight then the rest will follow.

Here he tells me what makes him tick, the importance of family (he has three children aged 5, 3 and 4 months) and why when it comes to true health, it’s time to put mind over muscle.

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“Mind and body health are one and the same.”

James is one of the only trainers I know who focuses on the mind, not just the physical body. “It makes total sense to me that any change in the body happens in the mind first," he says."It seems like there are physical trainers who are showing their six packs on Instagram or there are meditation people, but they are still very separate. To me, it’s all the same thing. When it comes to health we can’t separate the mind and body.

"People need to recognise the fact that you can have the mental equivalent of a sore knee and here at Bodyism we are very in tune with that. If people don’t feel right they used to be told to ‘snap out of it’, but no one’s telling me to snap out of a sore knee.”

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“Movement is medicine, however there’s good and bad medicine.”

Unlike many fitness businesses, James’s way of fitness is not about killing yourself until you vomit in the gym. “Today’s brain has to process about ten times the amount of information than our ancestors' brains did and the modern world is coming at us faster than ever. While we believe at Bodyism that movement is medicine, it’s so important to take the right type of medicine for you and your life. If you go to a HIIT class held by someone in hotpants who’s swearing and screaming at you then you may want to consider if you’re in the right class.”

“We’re not in the squats and lunges business – we’re in the people business.”

Anyone who has seen James’s Instagram might think he’s a total hippy; his favourite hashtag is #thebusinessofkindness and the phrase ‘Love always wins’ adorns the canopy of his Notting Hill café. Why, I ask, does he put niceness first when so many businessmen and women put it last?

“We have three words that everybody at Bodyism works towards and is guided by – kindness, compassion and respect. Those are a non-negotiable. Why? Because that’s what works – we want people to love coming to work. We also have a zero tolerance policy to nastiness and complaining. The personal training world can be one of the most egotistical and bitchy places to work in the world (I can say that as I am a personal trainer) but we don’t want to be like that and our policy makes it a very special place to work but also creates something very special for our members."

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"The age of the big bullying, back-slapping CEO is over."

"They are dinosaurs and we have people like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs who are more introverted. It’s naïve to think that being ruthless will get you where you need to go. I’m born to be mild!

"We are building a company culture and I like to surround myself with great people. I recently read an article by the guys who founded Netflix who have a motto that says ‘No brilliant jerks’, which resonated strongly with me. No matter how good someone is, it’s not worth it if they are a jerk. We also believe in employing people and teaching them a skill, because if it’s ever been the other way round it’s a total disaster."

“I was lucky enough to be homeless.”

When James first came to the UK he slept in Victoria station and on night buses for about two months with just 50 dollars and a sleeping bag to his name, but not wishing to belittle the issue of homelessness, he considers himself lucky. ”I would get my food when Starbucks chucked out their leftover food at night,” he says. “This gave me the gift of taking nothing for granted,” he says. “Every day that I have a roof over my head and have something to eat is a bonus.”

“One of my favourite phrases is: ‘Your ego is not your amigo’”

“I also am a big believer in the phrase ‘pride comes before a fall’. I believe that the second you start to take yourself too seriously, the joke is on you. When people start saying they’ve made it or they’re the bomb, is the minute I get nervous for them. You have to stay humble and grateful every step of the way – no one makes it on their own and you need people on your side. The minute you get cocky or take yourself too seriously, people lose interest.

"One day we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter so in the meantime try to have fun and be as good to as many people as you can.

"Here’s a great story I’ve learned: ‘If you wake up and go to the coffee shop and you bump into an arsehole and then on your way out you bump into another arsehole, and then the bus driver is an arsehole and you then sit next to an arsehole at work too, at the end of the day you might have to realise that you’re being the arsehole.'"

"Being kind to yourself - I keep it all very simple but the effects are magical."

"I am in the habit of letting go of any unkind words about myself and I do a little bit of exercise every day – not a lot, like half a Pilates class or 20 minutes of yoga in between waking up and having a shower. I will also do five minutes of breathing. Sometimes I'll take just one breath of three seconds in, six seconds out, a technique I learnt from a book called Tools of the Titans.

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“I firmly believe that you create your life."

"You need to take full responsibility for yourself whether it’s weight loss, relationships or wellness. Also, whatever your outlook is you’ll be right about it whether that’s ‘all men are bastards’ or ‘I can never lose weight.’ If you believe these things they tend to manifest, so you therefore need to change your outlook. We mean it when we say ‘be kind to yourself' in the way you think, speak and act – it changes your world. It’s not just hippy stuff.”

"Things happen for a reason"

“Bodyism used to be in another gym and things happened and it left us in a situation where we were a day away from losing our house. My wife Chrissie had just had a miscarriage and my dad had just died and it was a very, very painful situation but people will do what they do and you can’t take it personally. However I believe things happen for a reason and we now have this beautiful building and business in Notting Hill."

“You don’t need to be a psychologist to change your thinking."

"I don’t label people's way of doing something as ‘good,’ ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I just ask people ‘How’s it working for you?’ and if something isn’t working then they need to change the language around their thoughts into something positive. We all have a story running in our heads but it isn’t necessarily right and it's totally liberating if you can realise that it’s just a story.

"I had a story running in my head that started when I was six years old at school and learning fractions. I didn’t know the answer to some questions I was asked in front of my class and everyone laughed at me. As a result, I told myself I was stupid and I did everything I could to hide it from the world. I read and I studied and I used big words and I was constantly terrified of being found out, and I tried to sound as intelligent as I possibly could. It was exhausting, until one day I realised I was telling myself this false story.”

"We need to change our behaviours rather than looking for a quick fix."

"This is a story we tell new trainers and to clients: we have an imaginary client who wakes up and head butts the wall six times and gets on the bus and takes a headache pill and goes to work. This person is constantly looking for a better headache pill. However do they really need a better pill or do they just need to stop headbutting the wall? Of course they need to stop headbutting the wall. Everyone is always looking for the key to health – the 'It' diet, the exercise, the pill, or the protein powder. However what I’m really interested in is changing peoples’ behaviours.

"In my experience, people often don’t believe they deserve to be healthy and happy or that they are good enough. We need to change that internal story.”

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"We know for a fact that diets don’t work."

"There are many reasons they don’t work but the main one is if I said to you ‘Don’t think of the Eiffel Tower’ then all you would think about would be the Eiffel Tower. If you say don’t eat certain foods then all you’ll think about is that food."

"People who use the word 'clean' are having to rebrand which is sad."

James was the first to coin the term 'clean' food with his Clean and Lean books - which meant healthy, nutritious food that was untouched by chemicals and processes. Since that time, the term has been taken to extremes and the word 'clean' now has negative connotations of unhealthy, restricitve eating.

"It’s really sad that what was meant to be something good and healthy has gone bad. People who use the word 'clean' are having to rebrand which is sad and scary. Social media hasn’t helped, as a lot of people are dressing up their eating disorders with a green juice, which is very sad."

"My main priority in life is being a father and a husband."

“I’m not sure I am sane but that’s ok with me. I put things in my diary that make me happy and makes me feel good. I don’t have my phone in the room when I’m with the kids. For me, success is spending more time with my children and the happy moments I have with them. My main priority in life is being a father and husband and their happiness is way more important than any point I might be making or being right at something."

"It’s important how we speak to our children."

“I am often changing the endings of stories that I read to my daughter Charlotte. For example I’ll say at the end of Cinderella, ‘And then Cinderella got a job and started a business and bought a house and she then met a prince who could be her partner in life.’ Otherwise it tells a story of Cinders being hopeless until this prince came along and rescued her. Instead of saying she was pretty I have been known to say ‘Cinderella was kind and brave.’ I also think it’s very important how we speak to each other as parents as that’s how our children will accept being spoken to by their partners."

"Every time my thumb accidentally goes onto Instagram, I feel a slight lowering of my happiness."

"My sister is 25 and she and some of her friends have deleted social media off their phones. I think in the future we will look back on this time and wonder what the hell we were all thinking."

For more information about classes, membership, healthy advice and products go to www.bodyism.com

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