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DAVID HIGGINS

The personal trainer to the stars on swapping surf for snow, guilty pleasures, and teaching his children the importance of giving back

The festive season brings with it a flurry of emotions, from excitement and celebrations to busy preparations and time to reflect. We asked Australian-born, London-based fitness expert and Marvel cast trainer David Higgins about what this time of year means to him, and how he looks after the wellbeing of himself and others at Christmastime.

What epitomises Christmas for you?

Weirdly: sun surf and sand, as I’m Australian. But now that I’ve been in the UK for 15 years, it’s definitely Winter Wonderland. Whenever the lights go up in Hyde Park you know it’s Christmastime. Obviously, it’s not here this year, but we normally take the kids and they love it.

How do you usually celebrate during the festive season?

The Christmas tree goes up on the first weekend of December and we are establishing these little Christmas traditions in our family. We’ve started doing Elf on the Shelf. Basically the elf hides in the house (he turns up in all sorts of places) and goes back to Santa every night to tell him how the kids are behaving. It’s the perfect way to discipline young children because you just have to say, ‘Be careful, Elf on the Shelf is watching. Be good or you’re not going to get your presents!’ My kids are 8, 5 and 3. They still believe — and long may that continue.

How will you be celebrating this year?

We are trying to work out what we can do but I think it’s going to be a relatively healthy Christmas for everyone due the lack of office parties and socialising! We are not going anywhere; just having some time off. The UK is very busy with film and TV production at the moment, believe it or not. We’re filming Batman and Fantastic Beasts 3 here and it’s been quite intense. So because of that it’s actually going to be really nice to just be home with the kids the whole time.

What has been your most memorable Christmas, and why?

My most memorable Christmas is probably my first year in London. I’d never experienced a cold Christmas before and it was back in 2004 when it actually snowed in December. I’ve still never had a white Christmas, but I had never experienced snow in December before that. That year, I actually stayed at my friend’s house in Hastings — his family took me in as a bit of a refugee that Christmas. I remember going out for a run along the sea on the day. I just thought, ‘There’s nothing else to do, I may as well go for a run,’ and everyone in the family looked at me like I was crazy. It was freezing! 

"My kids still believe in Santa — and long may that continue"

David Higgins

Cooking is often seen as a cathartic pastime, who does the festive cooking in your home?

My wife and I both do the cooking. I like cooking and we share the load, shall we say. It’s a traditional roast followed by Christmas pudding and mince pies. The most important thing with the pudding is getting the sauce right. Is it cream, ice cream, Brandy sauce…? You’ve got to have all the options just in case you want all of them. I’m careful with what I eat most of the time but when it comes to Christmas, all bets are off and you just have fun and let go and enjoy yourself.

Does the festive period bring any challenges for you?

Christmas is the only time of the year where I try not to work. I give myself those two weeks off between wrapping a production just before Christmas and the New Year, so I allow myself total time off to decompress. I actually love this time of year, it’s quite nice to not focus on work and to catch up on other things.

The festive season can be quite busy and stressful. What have you found helps you to relax, and stay calm and positive?

I’ve just started the Calm app, it’s a really nice entry into meditation if you are feeling a little stressed. I also love listening to audio books. I just plug myself into however many I can get through and zone out. It’s important to separate work from life, especially as we’ve been spending so much time at home this year. Set up your workstation, don’t bring work to bed, have a time that you clock off and don’t check your emails. It’s very important but equally what that gives you is those few extra hours where you have time to possibly invest in your health — go for a walk or do some exercise at home.

What do you think is the best way to help others at this time of year?

I think to give back to families in need through food drives or gifts you can buy to give to charities. It also helps instil in my children that giving back is a really important thing and to recognise that not everybody has what they have and how lucky they are. My eldest son is eight and his teeth are all falling out of his head — and the other day he asked if he could give his tooth fairy money to Children in Need. I think those kinds of things are what this season is all about. 

What is the most meaningful gift you could give to somebody, and what’s your festive wrapping style?

I effectively classify my job as helping people; whether that’s getting them out of pain or to transform their body. I think the most important gift is for people to effectively love themselves and to look after themselves and to give themselves a little bit of attention.

When it comes to wrapping, I’m more of a put-it-in-a-bag kind of person. The whole wrapping thing is just a bit of a faff so unfortunately ‘wrapping style’ is definitely my wife’s domain. She gets annoyed with me if I start hacking away at wrapping paper. It’s the thought that counts! 

What would you most like to receive this year?

The easiest thing to buy me is a nice bottle of whisky. I will absolutely love someone forever for that. Hibiki 17 is my favourite currently. It’s extraordinarily expensive but I got a bottle from a client and it was the best Christmas present ever. 

"I’m careful with what I eat most of the time but when it comes to Christmas, all bets are off"

David Higgins

What is your favourite Christmas song?

All I Want for Christmas by Mariah Carey. It’s so cheesy — a true guilty pleasure. But when you hit 20 December you’re like, ‘I can’t hear this again!’ 

Reflecting on the past year and all of its challenges, could you share with us a positive that you discovered amidst the adversity, or something you learned that you’ll be taking into 2021?

From a professional perspective, I was forced to go digital this year. It had been one of those things on the to-do list for years. Originally I thought, “this lockdown thing can’t go on longer than three weeks.” So I decided to do live daily workouts of my 21 day reset programme from my book (The Hollywood Body Plan). I’d planned to just do it for three weeks, but after those first three weeks there was a lovely group of people who were doing it with me every day, and they were asking ‘What’s next?’, so I decided to continue — and it went on for 90 days. That was a real surprise.

I was really pleased and happy that I’d forced myself to turn the camera on. It was a little daunting as I’m not usually the one in front of the camera, normally it’s the people I work with who are. Working digitally, putting content out there, having feedback and creating that community was a real learning experience. The positive impact I had on lots of people, getting them out of pain and helping them to get through lockdown — not just physically, but mentally as well – was a real pleasure and a very unexpected part of 2020.

David Higgins is a fitness expert and personal trainer. Inspired by his own experience of injury and rehabilitation, he established a chain of boutique gyms, physio clinics and pilates studios in London, before setting up a consultancy company and working as a personal and physical trainer in film and TV. He is the cast physical trainer for many Hollywood movies, including the Marvel franchise, and has worked with the likes of Margot Robbie, Samuel L Jackson, Kumail Nanjiani and Gal Gadot. Discover David’s workouts for free on YouTube, his app, or by purchasing his book The Hollywood Body Plan. Follow him on Instagram @davidhigginslondon. 

The Royal Exchange is partnering with Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest to encourage conversations about mental health, wellbeing and community spirit. For further information on Mind in the City, its support services and how you can get involved with fundraising or volunteering, please visit: mindchwf.org.uk