Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ body has been through more than most, so how does he keep fit, asks Mark Bailey
"You have got to be fit enough not to make a fool of yourself,” declares Sir Ranulph Fiennes, with crisp military clarity. The adventurer (he prefers “expedition guide”) is sitting opposite me in an Oxfordshire hotel, hair neatly scraped back and rake-thin 6ft 4in frame wrapped in a smart double-breasted suit. “Francis Chichester was a great sailor, but he did one too many trips and required rescuing and it sort of blotted his copybook. So I don’t want to become a geriatric who is rescued while trying to do too much – and to avoid that I need to keep fit.”
At the age of 75, Sir Ranulph remains impressively active and ambitious, but beneath the patrician exterior, a life of polar, desert, jungle and mountain adventures has left him with unwanted souvenirs, from aching hips to back pain. He suffers from impaired vision after freezing an eyeball on a polar expedition, and is missing the tips of his frostbitten fingers on his left hand after he famously hacked them off with a fretsaw. “One of them has gone missing,” he remarks, as if referring to a stray set of keys. “The others I found in the office and I put them in a Kodak tin. I wouldn’t throw them away because I’ve had them for so long.”
And then there are the more common issues he has faced: the near-fatal heart attack in 2003, the battle with prostate cancer in 2008, the prediabetes diagnosis in 2013. He may be the first man (along with Charles Burton) to reach both poles, cross the Antarctic and Arctic Oceans, and circumnavigate the world along its polar axis by surface travel alone, but Sir Ranulph has handled the same cards that are dealt to many.
So, how does he manage to stay fit enough not to – in his words – make a fool of himself? The trick, he says, as we talk in the aftermath of an address he’s given at the Oxford Literary Festival to promote the updated edition of his autobiography, is to insist on expedition-level precision when it comes to a fitness routine, while making allowances for age.
“I try to do one and a half hours of exercise every day that I’m at home. In the morning, before breakfast – that’s a pretty good key to it. Otherwise you might skip it.” He does a 25-minute home workout, including up to 26 press-ups, 21 to 25 slow squats, and some back stretches. And he runs too – although not as much as before. “I climbed Everest when I was 65 and I was still running one and a half hours a day. But by the time I was 72, I had to change from saying, ‘I go for a run’ to, ‘I go for a jog’. Now I say, ‘I go for a shuffle’. It’s the most accurate description. Instead of running upright I start tilting forwards, which is annoying. But you have to say to yourself how lucky you are that you are still capable of any sort of exercise.”
The former SAS soldier adds that his runs – sorry, “shuffles” – are not always possible when he is busy. This month, for example, he will start a nationwide speaking tour, retelling stories from his childhood all the way through to his current challenge: a five-mile underwater walk from Robben Island to Cape Town, part of a fundraising push for Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. “I just have to fit exercise in when I can,” he says, earnestly. “When I went to Australia recently I managed to get on a running machine at a hotel and I ran down the beach in Hobart in Tasmania, but the other two days, no way.”
He says that updating his autobiography led him to reflect on the great fortunes he has experienced in recent years. “The only reason I was all right with prostate cancer was because I have an annual check-up. They said, ‘It’s aggressive, you have to go at once,’ so I had it removed by a robot.
“It was the same with my diagnosis for prediabetes. It means if you behave with your puddings you can escape Type 2 diabetes. And bearing in mind the number of people who first discover they’ve got Type 2 when they have to have their toes chopped off or they’ve gone blind, that is very lucky.”
Fiennes admits his heart attack continues to haunt him. “The doctor at the Bristol Royal Infirmary gave me two bypasses – one was my mammary gland, which men don’t use, and the other was an 11-inch bit of ‘spaghetti’ from an inner leg. He said the average that they would last is 15 years. That was over 15 years ago.”
He has tried to improve his diet by eating more oily fish although, he remains confused by the changing advice. “I go more for butter than I did when it had a bad name. I don’t eat eggs much, but I should because they’ve gone onto the good side. I drink a glass of red wine five times a week, but I am not sure whether it’s good or bad because each time you read the newspaper it seems to change.”
He adds that having cider vinegar on his salads has helped to fend off arthritis. But it is the spectre of mental decline that troubles him most. “I was trying to remember the name of a film actor and it took a long time to remember that. I’m worried about Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s or things which catch you at a certain age.”
Finally, our conversation turns to mental health. Sir Ranulph has suffered traumatic life experiences, notably the death of his first wife Ginny from stomach cancer, aged 56, in 2004 – but he says he has never faced long-term mental health problems. “I’m lucky enough not to get over-depressed. You might call it slightly moody, but that’s about it,” he says.
He has a tried and trusted solution, which perhaps best sums up his positive approach to life. “All I do is pick up a copy of The Economist and read about what’s happening around the world,” he says. “And it makes you feel lucky to be a Brit.”
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know by Ranulph Fiennes, updated and revised edition, is now published in hardcover by Hodder & Stoughton
How to stay active in later life
ALWAYS WARM UP
Before any exercise, mobilise stiff areas such as the ankles and lower back.
FOCUS ON EFFORT
Your body can feel different each day so don’t focus on pace, Think instead about perceived effort.
Recovery is crucial. Make sure you take plenty of “‘easy days”,’ too.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
Muscular strength decreases with age. Exercises like bodyweight squats will help you to maintain muscle and will protect your knees.
MOVE IN THE MORNING
Simple morning movement routines can keep your joints functioning correctly. Think especially about your feet, hips, shoulders and spine.
MIX IT UP
Listen to your body and don’t just ignore aches and pains. And add in some gentler swimming or cycling between running days.
BOOST YOUR BRAIN
Cognitive health is key. Brain training with Sudoko orand Scrabble, for example, will keep your brain healthy.