My sweet, sweaty, life-long obsession

A group of people practicing deep breathing exercises at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
A group of people practicing deep breathing exercises at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Participants of the 23rd edition of SAFRA Singapore Bay Run and Army Half Marathon flagged off from the Esplanade Bridge, on August 31, 2014.
Participants of the 23rd edition of SAFRA Singapore Bay Run and Army Half Marathon flagged off from the Esplanade Bridge, on August 31, 2014. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Since I was a teenager, exercise has been my daily anti-depressant and tranquilliser

Many people who know me, even casual acquaintances, often conclude that I am eccentric. One prominent feature of my eccentricity is my addiction to exercising, which can be described as obsessive compulsive.

Exercise, especially aerobics exercise, has been part of my daily routine since I was 13, after I did well in a cross-country race without preparation. At about the same time, I took up swimming.

I am an endurance athlete, and have never been good at short sprints, whether on land or in the pool. The longer the distance, the greater the likelihood that I would win. I have never figured out whether it was natural stamina or sheer will that allowed me to prevail over rivals.

Certainly, I am dogged.

Often, when I am swimming or running a long-distance race, Kipling's poem "If" comes to mind: "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'"

When I am exercising, I do not focus on any particular thing; I let random thoughts pass in and out of my mind, without following them, as though the thoughts are like monkeys swinging from tree to tree...

Kipling's words reflect my attitude. Between Secondary 1 and 4, I also learnt karate and achieved a first dan black belt. My mother stopped me from training in karate in pre-university after I fractured my hand blocking a kick in training.

Exercise has been my anti-depressant as well as my tranquilliser. If I miss my exercise, I am irritable and out of sorts compared with the days when I have done my full quota of exercise. I have varied my exercise regimen to accommodate study and work demands.

During a New England winter when I was undergoing a three-month stint in neurosurgery training, which was part of the requirement to be a paediatric neurologist at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, I would wake up by 4 am to get my run and swim done before heading to work, starting ward rounds at 6.30am with the senior resident in neurosurgery. At that time, I was also studying on the fly for a further degree for specialisation in paediatrics.

To fulfil the competing demands of study and exercise, I would "fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run" (to further quote Kipling's "If"), by recording myself reading aloud from textbooks and listening to myself on a Sony Walkman as I ran.

To sustain this regimen for three months, which was the duration of my neurosurgical posting, I was in bed by 9pm so that I could wake up at 4 am to run and swim.

My daily exercise regimen from my teenage years until the age of 35 included a 10km to 15km run, followed by a 2km swim before heading in to start my work day. After work, I swam another 2km before heading home.

I maintained a similar intensity even when I had to travel. When travelling, running was replaced by two hours of stepping on and off the step aerobic set at 10 inches, (two inches higher than what is recommended), holding a 2kg dumbbell in one hand. I always travel with my step aerobic board in a canvas bag.

When queried at the airport check-in counter, I would unzip the canvas bag and reveal the plastic boards. I would then request for stickers to indicate that the bag's contents are fragile and, for good measure, ask that it be treated as... a golf bag.

People sometimes ask me how I occupy my mind during the three to four stretches of exercising each day.

When I am exercising, I do not focus on any particular thing; I let random thoughts pass in and out of my mind, without following them, as though the thoughts are like monkeys swinging from tree to tree, which then pass out of my mind.

That is one way that novices learning meditation can use to quiet their minds. By the time I have completed my workout, I am at peace with myself and ready to face the world.

Occasionally, a "eureka" moment occurs when the solution to some problem I was working on and then left on the back burner while I exercised, suddenly appears, and it seems so obvious that I wonder why I had not thought of it much earlier.

I changed my exercise regimen ever since the 20m corridor in my home was thickly carpeted to prevent or minimise the risk of serious injury arising from a fall.

All I need to do now is to step out of my room in running shorts and singlet, and I can walk and/or run barefoot back and forth in the corridor. I usually do 15km per day, which means 375 times back and forth in two to three hours.

On weekends, I may do 20km, as well as strength and balancing exercises.

For those who wonder how I find the time to do so much exercise, I waste no time in getting to the exercise venue - I'm in bed by seven to eight in the evening, and my exercise begins at a little after 4am on weekdays. I usually decline social functions.

The amount of exercise I do is more than what is required for physical health. I do it because I feel good after doing so. Not only am I at peace with myself, but I feel confident that I can handle whatever problems occur later that day.

I also think better and faster. Friends who are familiar with me can tell whether I have finished my quota of exercise for the day by my cheerful smile and my jaunty gait. On days when I have not achieved my quota of exercise, I can be grumpy.

I am not advocating that everyone should follow my exercise regimen. Many will not be able to and will not enjoy doing so.

Repetitive injuries are par for the course and I not infrequently suffer from over-use injuries. I have learnt how to adjust my exercise regimen so that I can continue to exercise in spite of them.

Nor is it necessary to exercise this hard for better health. For some, it may even be detrimental.

I am a mortal who chooses not to obey mortal rules. When I am punished for breaking the rules, I have no right to complain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'My sweet, sweaty, life-long obsession'. Print Edition | Subscribe