James Middleton: “I don’t know anyone chasing a body who is that happy”

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James Middleton is far from being the typical fitness coach. Achieving 9 A*-As at GCSE and graduating from Durham University in 2015 with a 2.1 in Philosophy, he has always been very driven. Today, his Instagram: james.middleton_ boasts over 90k followers and he is currently working on building his own fitness app, with the aim of helping “hundreds of thousands, hopefully millions. I’m hoping it’s going to be a global thing.”

What sticks out to James as his fondest memories of Durham? “I was very fortunate, I played for the first fifteen for all three years, so rugby was a very serious part of my time at Durham. Also, we did some ridiculous socials that probably wouldn’t be allowed today. They just always involved a lot of drinking, a lot of fancy dress. We had a Pokémon theme, Power Rangers, a Lion king theme … gosh we had so many I probably should be able to remember, probably because I was drunk for most of them. We didn’t do anything that was racist or sexist. We never did anything like that. It was always well thought of. It was very creative, looking back, a lot of time and thought when into it.”

James believes the rugby culture was “incredible” when he was at Durham. “I guess playing in the 1st team, it was very serious: we trained 3x a week, were in the gym 4x a week and had matches every Wednesday. At the same time, it was a really good environment to be in, as all the guys would always support you. Yes, when I first started it was pretty intense, being the youngest guy in the team, I used to get a lot of teasing and made to do a lot of forced drinking…I’m not going to lie, when I first went I was a bit overwhelmed by particularly the drinking side, because I’ve never drunk like that before. But once the first few weeks were over, it was absolutely fine.”

“I used to get a lot of teasing and made to do a lot of forced drinking…I’m not going to lie, when I first went I was a bit overwhelmed”

James also used to run Monk Durham, which sold tickets to students for club nights. “That was a big part of my time aswell which meant I was out quite a lot, which probably affected my degree…”

James admits that his career is “very different” to his philosophy degree, but he “didn’t want to become a philosopher when [he] left Durham”. However, he has “always had an interest in philosophy, the way we think and the reasons behind why we do things”.

His degree, he insists, “plays a big role in what I do now because everyday I give people advice on how to be fit and healthy, but being fit and healthy is obviously a lot more than just physical, it’s also mental. A lot of the people that I train and coach online also need motivation and support with their daily lives. When you train people you get to know them quite well, and you often end up helping them with a lot of things outside of the fitness space.”

Does his academic background surprise people when they meet him? “Most people I meet have seen what I do through Instagram, and I don’t change.” James has “always been fairly articulate…I’m very much who you see on social media, I’m that in person. I think maybe in terms of the personal training industry, most trainers know a lot about fitness but not about much else. I think that’s why I’ve kept my clients for so long. They like the idea that I’ve got a lot more to me than just fitness. That’s where I help them in other areas of their life. I’m more like a lifestyle coach, rather than a fitness coach.”

“You have survived your whole life up until this very moment. You’ve made it through your darkest days, you’ve experienced heartbreak and sadness, love and happiness. Keep going”

James, an advocate for mental health, has released a podcast which explores how physical health affects mental health. For World Mental Health Day he encouraged people that “investing in our mental health is the best investment any of us will ever make.” He said: “You have survived your whole life up until this very moment. You’ve made it through your darkest days, you’ve experienced heartbreak and sadness, love and happiness. Keep going, we’re all in this together.”

Today, he explains “when you exercise, it’s a chance for you in your day, whenever you are doing it, to completely focus on yourself. Nothing else in the world matters. You switch off from the world around you. It’s a chance for you to be at one with yourself, whatever it is that you’re doing, whether it’s a run, in the gym, or you’re doing yoga. I think that escape is so important in life today because life is so busy, it’s non-stop with social media. It’s hard to get away.”

“For me, when I lost my younger brother, about 6 months ago, he was only 19 years old, that was obviously a massive, a massive, tragedy in my life. And something that really threw me. I think what really helped me get through that and is still helping me get through it, is the fact that I have my interest in keeping fit and healthy, because I go to the gym and no matter how bad I’m feeling, I know that once I exercise, I’ll feel better. I think that’s the most important thing. It doesn’t have to be an hour’s session, it can be a 15-20 minute workout, but you’re always going to feel better once you do it.”

“No matter how bad I’m feeling, I know that once I exercise, I’ll feel better”

Exercise, for James, is “the anchor in my life, it really helps me focus. So I would say that’s a big thing on the mental side of things. And people don’t actually realise the value of it until they do it, so if you’re ever thinking about the reasons to start exercising, don’t think about it, just go and do it. And you’ll see how beneficial it is.”

Why does James take responsibility for making sure others stay healthy? “It relates back to relationships, it helps you sleep better, it can improve your sex life, it can improve your thinking ability, your clarity. There is so much that comes with it. You obviously have the physical benefits, being healthy, better cardio-vascular fitness. But the benefits that people don’t realise is, when you’re active, moving and are healthy, your energy levels are higher”.

He notes that “there is a correlation between being a fitter, more active individual, and having a better sex life, because you’re more engaged with your partner, you’re more attracted to them. And you sleep better when you exercise because you’ve obviously used a lot of energy, the recovery you need is better.”

“There is a correlation between being a fitter, more active individual, and having a better sex life, because you’re more engaged with your partner, you’re more attracted to them”

How would James like to see the government tackling the obesity crisis and getting people out and exercising? “There are these posters you see around, saying you need to eat less and move more, but it’s much more complicated than that. To someone who is not obese, or not suffering from not knowing what to eat or not knowing what to do, it’s very easy to get lost in a world where you just say that. The government need to make healthier food more accessible to perhaps people with a lower income or who can’t afford healthier food. I think there’s a connotation, at the moment, that healthy food is expensive, which it is, but it doesn’t have to be and just making people more aware of it, through the news, through educational programs, that would be a great start. Another start would be to hold workout classes that are free for people in local communities, and maybe every Saturday they could come down and workout.”

How does he feel about sponsored content online? “There are two sides. Primarily, it’s a great thing if there are good brands that want to reach a targeted audience. There’s a lot more investment going into sponsored content now on Instagram and that’s for a very valid reason, it’s effective. These people with big audiences, they buy into the influencer and so long as the influencer is promoting a product that’s genuine, good and might help people, then I’m all for it. The problem is that you have a lot of people out there, with big platforms who get thrown a lot of money by brands that aren’t necessarily very healthy, like drinks and weight loss tablets, and they are selling that stuff to a very, very impressionable young audience, almost naïve audience. Unfortunately, people are buying these harmful products because they think that it works and that’s the flip of the coin. At the moment, the ASA, the advertising agency for Instagram, is clamping down a lot.”  

People out there, with big platforms, are getting thrown a lot of money by brands that aren’t necessarily very healthy… selling to a very impressionable young audience

James acknowledges that he does “some sponsored content, but my philosophy is, I only work with brands that I would be comfortable selling to a young kid…16-17 year old girls, they don’t know any different, when they see someone they follow who, let’s say has been on Love Island, and says drink this drink, it made me lose 2 stone in 2 weeks, these young people are likely going order that. And I don’t blame them because they don’t know any better.”

Is it hard dealing with online criticism? “I’m very fortunate in the sense that I hardly get any trolls or online criticism. My own approach to it is I just ignore people that do it. Every so often, I will reply, and give someone a piece of my mind, but it’s to stop them from doing it elsewhere. The thing with trolls and the thing with online , is that it comes from a bad place within that individual: they must be very upset, sad, or something must be wrong in their lives to go on to someone else’s profile and portray that kind of anger and bitterness. So I almost feel sympathetic for these people, because there’s clearly something going on that they think this way, that they’re trying to bring other people down. You just have to ignore it and you do become very immune to it after a while. It still, obviously, hurts a little bit but you can’t dwell on it otherwise you end up being quite upset.”

Trolls and online come from a bad place within an individual: they must be very upset, sad, or something must be wrong in their lives to go on to someone else’s profile and portray that kind of anger and bitterness

Has he dealt with insecurities about his body? “Yes, I have. When I was a teenager, I was always conscious that I had quite skinny legs, and being a rugby player, all these guys had big, strong legs and I didn’t. It became a real issue for me. I didn’t know what to do and I used to get quite obsessed with trying to grow them in the gym. Then I realised that I was being ridiculous, I was only 17 years old and I hadn’t really grown yet. The irony is that now I think my legs are the strongest part of my body. It’s funny how things change. I also used to have, well I still do, I used to have this birth mark on the back of my leg, and I remember I wanted to get it removed at one point because all the rugby boys would take the piss and say there’s dirt on my leg, every time we were training. And that used to really irritate me. So much so that I even went to a dermatologist with my mum to ask about getting it removed. But I realised that actually it’s a part of who I am, it’s unique and now I fully embrace it, and I love it.”

Is James training as much now in the gym, as he was back then? “It’s a different kind of training because back then you are training for rugby purposes, and to be really big and strong. I was a bit, not fatter, but a bit bigger. I wasn’t as lean.” Now James does weight training 4-5 times a week and after 1 or 2 weight sessions, he will “always do a little bit of cardio, so 20 minutes of running or a little circuit just do get my heart rate up and keep my fitness levels up.”

Is James into fitbits and trying to reach 10,000 steps a day? “Yes, I actually wear a fitbit everyday, but I’m on my feet all day every day so I hit about 15-16,000 steps a day quite comfortably, and I burn about 4,000 calories, which is why I need to eat so much.”

What is his , what is eating so much? “Ahh, it’s a lot. Shall I take you through a typical day? I wake up at about 6.30, I’ll have a bowl of bran flakes with oat milk and a coffee. I’ll do a bit of work and then I’ll have 2 bagels with 4 eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and spinach. Then I’ll have a smoothie with a banana, berries, peanut butter, protein, oat milk. Lunch time: I’ll usually have a chicken sandwich with a salad, and then in the afternoon I’ll probably have another kind of quinoa salad and a protein shake. In the evenings I’ll have some kind of fish with potatoes or pasta and a plate of veg. So it’s quite a lot.” This sounds delicious. “It’s expensive though… I do love food. That’s why I train so much, so I can eat more.”

“I train so much, so I can eat more”

Does James have a cheat meal? How often does he indulge in unhealthy food? “I dislike the term cheat meal because it’s got a negative association with food and there is no such thing as good and bad food. There’s just different foods for different purposes. I tell all my clients, it’s not a cheat meal, it’s just a food that isn’t as good for you as perhaps what you would normally eat.” He explains it helps to look at it this way “because sometimes if you eat a pizza, and you associate it with being a cheat meal, you associate it being something naughty. Everytime you have it, you’re going to feel slightly guilty, and that shouldn’t be the case. You should be able to eat food like that and it be fine.”

James confesses, “I do indulge more than people think. I love pizza, chocolate and bread… I say on the weekends I tend to be more relaxed with my die,t so I’ll have pudding, I’ll drink some alcohol. Most of the time I’m pretty good, so actually, when I do that, I make sure I enjoy it to the max.”

How does James strike the balance between self-love and self-obsession? “I think there’s a very fine line. You can tell from pretty far off whether someone’s self-obsessed or it’s self-confidence. I think, all the messages that I put out, or anything that I do, there’s always the intention of it trying to help someone or at least there is some kind of advice in there. A lot of people on Instagram, it’s all about themselves, their lives, what they are buying, what they’re up to, and although people are interested in it, I think that’s a little bit self-obsessed. Although I give people some insight into my life and things that are going on, a lot of my content is always about providing tips or useful information or motivating people… You can tell when delivering something to the camera if someone’s confident or not. You can also tell when people are talking to camera if they love themselves: they keep looking at their own reflection.”

What are the stereotypes in the fitness industry and has James found the stereotypes to be accurate? “I think a big stereotype in the fitness industry is that everyone’s big, strong and muscly. It can be quite intimidating. Yes, there are occasions where I see a lot of that, and it’s very true. But that’s all on the surface. Once you get to know people, you actually realise that even though they are these big, macho, muscly men or women, they’re all really lovely, genuine people and the fitness industry is a great place. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bullshit that’s in the fitness industry aswell. People just out there to make money and exploit people doing so. But amongst the good coaches, it’s great.”

“Also you don’t have to be knowledgeable and you don’t necessarily need to fit the stereotype of having a six-pack or being lean. I know so many people who are incredibly fit and healthy who don’t have these things. For me, it’s more about just being happy with what you’re doing, rather than trying to chase a body. I don’t know anyone chasing a body who is that happy.”

“For me, it’s more about just being happy with what you’re doing, rather than trying to chase a body. I don’t know anyone chasing a body who is that happy”

James, in 2018, entered into the reality TV show, Survival of the Fittest, which pits girls against the boys in the battle for survival. What was his favourite part about shooting the show? “The fact that you had no communication with anyone in the outside world. You had no phones, nothing. It was you and a bunch of people you had never met before. And what’s incredible when that happens is you end up forming relationships incredibly fast, since you don’t have any distractions or outside nonsense that could interfere. I really enjoyed being completely immersed in it, and getting to know people that I probably would not cross paths with in my life if I hadn’t been on that show.”

Nevertheless, he discloses that “a lot of the people who went on the show went on for the wrong reasons, they went on to be famous. They weren’t that genuine and they’re all pretty nasty when they got out and were fame-hungry.”

Thankfully, James dos not “ever get bored” of being a fitness coach. “Fitness feels like such a big part of my life. Every day, even if I wasn’t a coach, I’d be doing it.” However, he reveals that “what I do sometimes struggle with is being on social media and every single day, I have 15-20, sometimes 30 messages from people, asking me about fitness tips. So I feel like it’s very hard to switch off sometimes, it’s kind of 24/7.  There are times when I do think, Oh I wish I could work in a Monday – Friday job and just be able to chill out on the weekends. But that said, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

“You get a lot of discouragement along the way and things throw you back, but you just got to keep going. Just keep going”

James, whilst at Durham, “had no idea” he’d end up where he has. “What I wanted to do was to be a sports agent, which is what I ended up doing when I left. I worked for a sports agency where I looked after Olympic athletes and did all their commercial deals and sponsors, so I very much stayed within the sports industry. Although I love fitness and it was a big part of my life, I never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing now. I guess for people who read this: Your path isn’t always what you think it’s going to be, sometimes things can happen for the better and take you in different directions. It’s fine if you don’t know what you want to do as you might end up doing something completely different”.

Today, James really values “the fact that I get to work whenever I want, on my own terms. I’m not reliant on having to report to someone else. If I want to go away on holiday tomorrow, I can book a holiday and go away tomorrow and not care about taking days off. I like that I work anywhere and when I’m working hard, I know that I’m helping a lot of people along the way. That’s actually probably the biggest thing. The fact that everyday, I’m helping people live healthier, happier lives. That’s the most rewarding thing about it all.”

What would James tell his younger self? “To never give up following your passion. Particularly in university and school, you get told you have to do certain things to get to certain places, to get certain jobs, and I think as long as you are doing something that you enjoy, just keep doing it. Don’t listen to what other people are trying to make you do or tell you to do. And if someone says you can’t do something, it’s rubbish. I got told that I would never play in the 1st fifteen 3 years at Durham, and I did. I got told that I would never make it as fitness coach because I didn’t have enough knowledge and expertise, and here I am. I think you get a lot of discouragement along the way and things throw you back, but you just got to keep going. Just keep going.”

Images: James Middleton

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