MOVE! 1.0

EXERCISE. What is it exactly? 

Light years from the glitzy money-spinner the industry is now, it was so simple in my day. Growing up in Singapore, it started with ‘Go and Play!’ For girls, it was hopscotch, skipping and racing each other up and down footpaths. In secondary school, it was over an hour weekly of netball, badminton or ping-pong. The boys played tennis and soccer, or lifted the old iron weights to look like Schwarzenegger. It seems there always was a body-image link – even Dad confessed to taking up bodybuilding as a teen because he was too … ‘puny’. 

Remember the earlier tales of my dreamy childhood? Wait, there’s more. 

Our parents would often take us to lovely tropical beaches like Changi (yes, near the infamous prison) on Sundays. Again, FOOD was the universe, not the invigorating exercise of swimming itself – but the balmy salt-air and our dainty dips still made us ravenous. Curries, fragrant rice, fried noodles, sautéed fresh vegetables and pickles were kept hot in Tiffin carriers. We sat on bamboo mats on the sand, relishing every minute, warm winds caressing our bodies as we gorged …

I’m with my foodie Dad at a S’pore fishing/swim spot, 1950s

But sadly, those calm, safe waters didn’t tempt us to learn swimming at all. We were always terrified of putting our heads underwater and not breathing. I didn’t learn how to until I was 21. 

Here’s the thing. To really take fitness seriously (or anything of value), there has to be at the very least a DESIRE – or better still, an actual NEED. I had a fear of deep water. I didn’t trust Dad or any of his friends to ‘teach’ me, as all they wanted to do was lift me up and throw me in the sea!

Now I had a need, a desire and a purpose. I simply had to build lung capacity to help me succeed as a singer. I wanted it so badly I lost the fear of putting my head underwater. It brings to mind the words of novelist Paulo Coelho, and it’s a principle you can use in all aspects of your life:

‘When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it … making a decision is only the beginning of things – when you make a decision, it is like diving into a current which will take you to situations you have never dreamed of.’1

I only recently read Coelho’s book, and at once recalled my firm decision to learn swimming. How apt his words were!

Plunging those depths

I found a qualified swim instructor and had my first lesson at the shallow end of a pristine pool at a sparkling Singapore hotel. Mr Wong knew I was scared – but he was kind, extremely patient and I trusted him enough to lead me halfway across after my first few sessions.  

Graduating from leg-kicks, with arms outstretched shakily clutching the edge of a kickboard, I could after a while comfortably float, put my head underwater, and slowly make it to the deep end. My elation rubbed off on my sister and brother, and they too learned to swim with the rock-secure, Zen-like Mr Wong.

Conquering my first major fear raised my self-esteem and confidence to the skies. I could hold singing notes for longer (I vocalised Thus Spake Zarathustra!), had more energy, and felt joyously invigorated and relaxed after genuine laps of freestyle. No more toe-dips or wading in, nervously avoiding jellyfish; I now swam 3 times a week. 

Let’s see the HUGE benefits of this exercise: 

I couldn’t help but look again at the familiar mahjongers and over-indulgers around me – still slouching on armchairs, refusing any exercise, including walking. They had the time, but not the will; they simply didn’t know (or maybe didn’t want to). It was a hop-in-hop-out affair from their chauffeured cars to more sag-sitting at work, at home, or at gluttonous hawker food centres.

I continued to swim until I was 34, when I had my first child. Now with a baby, I was on my feet most of the day, climbing up and down stairs at home. I’d never lifted, carried, bended or knelt so much in my life! I ached, and my muscles strained to do things I’d never done before.    

But did those stairs improve my fitness much? NO. On a particularly crazy day, my heart raced faster than usual. Was there something wrong with me? My GP just said, ‘Shirley, you’re just UNFIT!’

How could that be? I was following Dr Walker’s food combos as best I could, my stomach was back to normal after giving birth, and I was active enough at home. I felt OK. So why was I ‘unfit’? 

I had to hear the rest of the doctor’s words: 

‘You need to exercise, keep your body moving for at least 30 minutes a day until you begin to feel hot. That will get your heart pumping. It won’t race as much as you become FITTER.’

That word again. 

Okay, that sounded reasonable. I could start walking. The next street to mine was a little over 1km with a 40° gradient. A good place to start. I didn’t even make it a quarter of the way up. Puffing and panting, my legs leaden, I couldn’t do another step. I gave up and went home.  

But I persisted. Each day I walked a little more. It took nearly a month to reach the top of that painful road and down again in 45 minutes. I got hot and stayed warm for the next hour, which felt lovely in winter. By then I was hooked. Windy, humid, cold or rainy, I did it 6 days a week for 30 years. I now do 25 minutes on the same track! 

I realised that walking first thing in the morning helped me manage work and life. Going up the hill I would meditate, the blue sky and trees giving me the respite I badly needed from everyday cares. My rigour even earned me praise and admiration from colleagues and friends; ‘You’re so disciplined!’, they’d say. 

I could now for the first time actually deal with all the usual stresses and more. As a payroll officer, I had to handle demanding people, (wo)man the phones, and appease furious staffers over their pay complaints and accusations. But I got to calmly enjoy the challenge of explaining complex things, mediating disputes and reassuring people. I’d sometimes dash to the kitchen to make a cuppa for those most distressed, and I’d go home feeling satisfied and happy to help in some way. 

All in all, the simple act of walking (plus hill) became a real blessing to me. It’s something you too can start with if you’ve not actively exercised before. It helped me through good days, bad days, cheery and down days. Read the inestimable rewards of walking from the National Heart Foundation for yourself, and please also look closely at this summary chart: 

But doesn’t life invariably seem to fling us harder challenges? 

As you’ll see in Move! 2.0, I was diagnosed with premature menopause at 36. I learned I was sorely deprived of life-giving estrogen for well over a year. But I know for certain that without those strenuous incline treks, my bones would have gone downhill a lot quicker. 

I truly hope this will encourage you to make swimming, walking or both a part of your initial MOVE! 1.0 challenge.

1 Coelho, P. (1994). The Alchemist, pp. 42, 71. HarperCollins: San Francisco.

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