Skipping for 71 years – and not stopping
The year 2020 certainly produced plenty of heartache, but it also created some truly inspiring heroes: Captain Tom, of course, but who could forget Rajinder Singh, aka the Skipping Sikh?
Singh first appeared on our screens during the spring of 2020 after his daughter Minreet filmed him doing his daily exercises on his allotment in west London and uploaded them to YouTube.
He was hoping to encourage older people to keep fit even if, like him, they were self-isolating. But it was the skipping video that sent him viral. Hundreds, then thousands, and eventually a quarter of a million people logged on to watch a 74-year-old man with a long white beard skipping, and helped him raise more than £14,000 for NHS charities.
He went on to appear in a podcast with Captain Sir Tom Moore, was awarded an MBE in The Queen’s Birthday Honours list and has ambitious plans for a campaign to bring skipping and fitness to an even bigger audience (even if he does admit it can be a bit hard on the knees).
‘Of course I was surprised at the success,’ he says, via a video call from his living-room sofa. ‘My first thought was, “I don’t want to be famous”. There are many people who are more important than a crazy skipping man. Why not put them on TV?’
But it was Singh that the networks all wanted; he grabbed headlines in the US, Australia, the Middle East – and in India, where he first learned to skip 69 years ago.
“Son, you must look after your body”
He grew up in Devi Das Pura, a small village in Amritsar, near the border with Pakistan. ‘Because I was the eldest child, I would go every day to help my father on the farm.
He was always interested in sport and, one day, he said, “Son, you must look after your body. You are going to learn how to skip”.
‘At first I was crying because it was too difficult, but after my first three skips, my father lifted me up and gave me a sweet. I said, “Dad, I will not let you down”. Skipping, running, lifting weights – sport soon became my passion.’
Singh’s father, who served in the Indian Army, was also a dedicated charity worker, donating money to families in need. ‘Life was very difficult for us,’ Rajinder explains. ‘No water, no electricity – and we were close to the border where there was fighting between India and Pakistan.
When I was 13 my father said, “I am worried. You are always outside and you might get killed or be put in prison”. So he sent me to live with my uncle in Hounslow, west London. I didn’t want to go, but a son has to obey his father.’
As luck would have it, there was an athletics track close to Rajinder’s new home and his running talent was immediately spotted by his PE teacher. ‘The teacher said to me, “One day, you will be a great athlete”. I told my uncle, but he wasn’t happy. He said, “Athletics will not put a roof over your head”. Today, with all the sponsorship, athletes can earn a living but at the time, my uncle was right.’
Instead, after leaving school, he landed a job as a driver at Heathrow Airport, but says that sport remained his passion: he skipped regularly and loved running and cycling (and was once stopped by the police for speeding while cycling home from work).
‘More than 30 years ago I was the only Sikh to take part in the airport charity bike ride from Heathrow to Brighton, and I was ahead of many people who were younger than me. My manager was surprised at my stamina, but I told her it was because I was skipping and exercising every day. My skipping was well known to all my colleagues and one of them even bought me a skipping rope. It’s more than 40 years old, but I still use that same rope today.’
There’s nothing like it for getting the heart pumping
Singh skips every day, on and off for five to ten minutes at a time, and says its hypnotic rhythm helps him to meditate. He finds there’s nothing like it for getting the heart pumping, and it’s great for bone density and muscle tone. He also cycles and runs, and until the pandemic, regularly led a local 5k park run.
However, at 76, Singh has finally had to admit that he’s not quite as fit as he used to be, and he’s not happy about it. ‘There was a time when I could do at least ten or 15 squats with a 20kg dumbbell. When it became difficult, I was so angry that I wanted to punch myself in the face,’ he says with a chuckle.
‘Maybe that is the problem when you get older. You cannot do the things you used to do, so you give up. No! You must never give up! Even if you cannot run, you can walk.
‘Even if you cannot lift 5kg, you can lift 2kg. If you are cooking, you can use a can of beans to exercise your arms. You can support yourself on a chair and do some squats. You don’t need a gym or a pool.’
He’s also a fan of healthy eating: ‘Brown is my favourite – brown bread, brown rice, brown sugar, lots of fresh vegetables and fresh garlic. Don’t eat too much cake!’ Minreet, 42, confides that his favourite sandwich is brown bread and butter with turmeric, black pepper and raw onions.
In a year that’s been full of surprises for Singh, perhaps the biggest was an email from Buckingham Palace saying that he’d been awarded an MBE in The Queen’s Birthday Honours. ‘I am not educated or special,’ he says with genuine humility. ‘Why give it to me? I don’t deserve it.’
Minreet – who’s sitting next to him on the sofa – and I both tell him what an inspiration he’s been, but he doesn’t seem convinced. ‘For me, I would rather be the lowest in society, but God bless you for saying that. And God bless all the people that have helped me. And God bless my role model, Captain Tom. He is the one who inspired me to do something for the NHS.
‘I was fortunate enough to be a guest on his podcast and we had a wonderful conversation – all about skipping, my father, life in India. I just hope that I am still skipping when I reach 100. I salute him!’
In 2022, Singh continued his inspirational run – literally, completing the London Marathon (for the second time) in under six and a half hours. He also found time to meet the Prime Minister and teach many schoolchildren the value of exercise – of course, with a skipping rope in tow.
And I did it completed the @LondonMarathon in 6 hours 29 minutes. Really enjoyed the atmosphere and such lovely weather. Thank you to @age_uk for allowing me to be a part of raising awareness on the work you’re doing for people like us. Well done to everyone #LondonMarathon pic.twitter.com/9Lz5wibdcj— Skipping Sikh MBE (@SikhSkipping) October 2, 2022
‘All I want to do is show people what they can do even when life is hard,’ he says. ‘My approach is don’t get stressed, don’t sit in front of the TV. Have a healthy diet. Stay active. Don’t give up! I am committed to helping more people until my last breath.’
Should you skip?
Skipping burns more calories than running, improves cardiovascular fitness and stamina, improves whole-body co-ordination and can enhance bone density. Certainly, Singh makes it look easy. But if, like many of us, you haven’t skipped since chanting ‘Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around…’ in the playground, it’s best to start slowly. Be extra careful if you’re overweight, have trouble with balance or painful knees or ankles. Even Singh wears a knee support when he skips.
Fitness instructor Terry Keen, 74, who was awarded a British Empire Medal this year for his workouts for older people, says, ‘Skipping is a tremendous exercise but as you get older it can be surprisingly hard as your power to weight ratio declines.’
Before starting, Terry suggests improving balance with toe and heel raises. Stand up (you can hold the back of a chair) and lift toes off the ground 8-10 times. Repeat with heels.
Stand on your left leg, raise your right leg and touch your right kneecap with your left elbow or hand. Do the same on the other side.
Hold a skipping rope, one end in each hand or both ends in one hand. Arc it in a big circle; twist hips as you move.
Put the skipping rope out in front of you and step over it a few times. If that feels good, hop over it. Only then progress to small jumps, landing on the balls of your feet.
‘Build up gently and watch your heart rate – it’s good to raise it a bit, but not to overdo it,’ says Terry. ‘If you can do it, great, but if you can’t, don’t worry; there are plenty of ways to increase your fitness as you get older that are lower impact.’
See more of Terry’s audio and video exercises for older people at 10today.co.uk (10-minute daily workouts in association with Sport England and Anchor Hanover retirement homes).
Written by Danny Scott