Fit for office: How world leaders stay in shape


When a head of state makes more headlines for running round the block than running the country, it brings a new meaning to “fit for office”. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is seen so often pounding the pavement that satirists call him “Nike-olas”.

But some voters do not appreciate the image of an energetic president in a hurry. Although running is increasingly popular in France, some see it as anathema to French culture and western civilisation, which are steeped in the more spiritual “promenade”. Others see it as a pastime imported from America.

France’s youngest president in years has been keen to demonstrate his vigour. During the election campaign, he posed as a cowboy herding bulls, and he likes to appear on a bike — another key Frenchsport. Sarkozy, whose motto is “the France that gets up early”, wants to set himself apart from grandpere Jacques Chirac, who liked to watch sumo wrestling but barely stretched his legs.

Sarkozy is not the only world leader to start the day with a bang. Yet most of his peers tend to opt for something more discreet, or more in keeping with the national esprit.

Gordon Brown, UK

Gordon Brown used to be an early-morning regular in the Westminster gym but it is not known whether he has copied Tony Blair by getting a prime ministerial exercise bike.

“I haven’t asked him,” said his spokesman. Brown was a champion tennis player in his youth and he told the BBC on July 16 that he would play on holiday this summer. Contact sports were curtailed when he lost the sight in one eye during a rugby match.

“I used to play football, rugby and sometimes tennis, but now it’s running or swimming — easy things,” he told the Daily Mirror last month. “I try to exercise in the mornings, but sometimes it’s not so easy when you’ve got meetings first thing and young children. The treadmill is what you do if you can’t run around the town.”

George Bush, US

Once a heavy drinker, Bush is a reformed character. Unlike Bill Clinton, who jogged occasionally, Bush is fit. He takes a break at about 4.30pm each day for a 60-minute workout. His knees began to give him trouble in 2004 so he tends to run on treadmills rather than outside. He has a bike that hooks on to a stationary trainer and also uses it aboard AirForce One. He says that being fit makes him think more clearly.

At weekends, he often takes his mountain bike to the extensive secret service grounds at Beltsville, Maryland, where he rides with friends and White House staff, or at his ranch in Texas.

“It brings out the child in you,” he said. “I think it’s OK... to still seek that youth, chase that fountain of youth.”

Vladimir Putin, Russia

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is probably the nearest thing among international leaders to action man, and his public love him for it. For a start there is his love affair with judo, which he took up as a child to compensate for a lack of height. By 18 he was a black belt. These days, he swims — 1,000 metres a day in the presidential dacha pool- and works out for 30-40 minutes. He’s also a handy skier, testing the slopes to be used for the 2014 Winter games, awarded this week to the Russian city of Sochi.

“He’s a good skier. I’m not in a position to say just how good,” a spokeswoman for Russia’s Federal Agency for Mountain Skiing said diplomatically.

Angela Merkel, Germany

Sport is not high on Angela Merkel’s agenda. Opera, cooking and reading are her favoured forms of relaxation. But the 52-year old German chancellor is a keen rambler, making good use of the paths in the nature reserve where she and husband have a weekend home, north of Berlin.

“At least once a week I try to go on a long walk in the countryside so that I can take my mind off politics,” she has said. Last summer she went to the Italian Dolomites and hiked on Monte Rite with explorer Reinhold Messner. Merkel also sought to improve relations with Polish prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, by taking him and his wife for a brisk stroll along Baltic coast.

Evo Morales, Bolivia

Evo Morales has been a keen footballer since boyhood and being president has not stopped his kickabouts. He is often photographed in shorts taking aim at a ball. The president also plays squash and opponents testify to his stamina.

He has led a revolt against a decision by Fifa to ban international matches at more than 2,500 metres (8,200ft) above sea level, which the football body says is dangerous to health. To prove his point last month the president played a 30-minute game (during which he scored) on top of Chacaltaya mountain — 5,270 meters above sea-level. Fifa reduced the limit to 3,000 metres but Morales rejected the compromise.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela

When not hurling insults at George Bush, the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, likes to pitch fast balls to batters in midnight games of softball. The games, often spontaneously ordered by Chavez after a long working day, are held at an arena beside the presidential palace, Miraflores, and often involve ministers, officials and guards. Despite the name, the ball is hard and in the tropical night players are left sweating.

The young Hugo was a champion baseball pitcher in the army and later a sports instructor at a military academy. Since becoming president he has piled on the pounds rather.

Alvaro Uribe, Colombia

His politics can be inflexible but Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia, can certainly stretch. He is South America’s most famous yoga fan. It is a form of yoga nidra, a mix of exercise and meditation credited with inducing complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation while maintaining consciousness.

That hardly fits the stereotype of a tough, rightwing leader, and Uribe is known for losing his temper, so the question is how much grouchier he would be without the yoga.

“He loves it. Every day at midday he disappears to do his yoga for 30 minutes,” said Bernardo Moreno, secretary general to the presidency. “He’s very disciplined about it.”