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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

Walking & swimming halfway around the world: slomad life improves the mind-body connection

I did not grow up in an athletic family. I loved my parents, but my dad was an academic librarian and my mom was first an academic, then a lawyer. When other kids played sports, I read books. I was overweight most of my life, and one of my most traumatic childhood elementary school memories is being forced to complete the one-mile run to satisfy the Presidential Fitness Test which was a hallmark of grade school in the 1960’s.

Picture this: overweight, 10-year-old Kim, wearing one of those royal-blue one-piece gym suits. Here is a picture of me at that age, and a photo of a gymsuit of that era:

I mean, the suit is not a good look on a svelte manniquin, and it was an even worse look on me. Yes, I had trouble with the sit-ups and the push-ups, but when I had to run the mile, it took me so long that I was late to my next class, and made an embarrassing entrance with a beet-red face in front of everyone. It is seared into my memory.

Paul & I were recently watching Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, & this all came rushing back to me when Midge’s dad, Abe, put on a “romper” and exercised to Robert Preston singing “Go You Chicken Fat Go”. If you are part of Generation Jones, and grew up in the United States, it is likely that this record was played frequently - & loudly - in your gym class. Of course, I only learned this week that the song was written by Meredith Willson (who wrote The Music Man) and sung by Robert Preston, which makes it cool in a retro sort of way. But at the time, it was my nemesis! You can hear the recording here.

But one form of exercise was always my friend. I had learned to swim when I was a child, when my family would go to lakes and pools and I don’t remember ever not being able to swim.

This is me at age 5, on the left, at a pool near Frankfort, Kentucky. Later, when I was about 10, I went to girl scout camp a few years in a row, and learned more formal swim strokes. I went from the beginner “red-caps” and worked my way up to the advanced, “blue caps”, learning all the strokes. I loved swimming - in the water, I didn’t feel limited by what gravity did to my heavy body.

But, it wasn’t until I was in college that I started to exercise in any regular way, and the exercise I enjoyed was swimming. I took a course called Human Biology, and my professor required that students exercise so many minutes a week. I swam. My good friend, Sue Helper, and I would sometimes go together. She is an avid swimmer to this day, swimming in Lake Erie when she is home and not serving as economic advisor to the President of the United States (but, that is another story). This is Sue a few years after we graduated from college.

My exercise regime was on-again, off-again for the ensuing decades. When I lived in Indianapolis, I joined a fitness center, but my attendance was sporadic. At the University of Dayton, I participated in an exercise program on campus just long enough to earn T-shirts saying I was working out. I tried sweatin’ to the oldies with Richard Simmons (Jane Fonda being a bit too skinny to make me think I could do her videos). When we moved to Michigan in 2000, the 50-miles each way daily commute pretty much ate up my time, although I had spurts of using my recumbent stationery bike at home.

The other exercise I found appealing was walking. I first hiked seriously in the French Alps as an exchange student in 1974 and again when I returned in 1979. It was glorious, although it had moments like experiencing severe leg cramps in a hostel high up in the mountains. But mostly, it was wonderful.

Here's me in the French alps in 1974:

...and in 1979 (the third photo is my host mother, Suzan Rene)

I also hiked when in college in law school, in the late 1970's, including a couple of memorable trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Here we are (Sue, my now-husband, Paul, and me) on a White Mountains Hiking trip.

By the early 2000’s, I had developed plantar fasciitis and my feet were too sore to hike. My fitness level, too had dropped seriously. In 2018 we moved to Lansing, dropped the commute, and I joined the YMCA so I could swim. And, swim I did. I was going at least 3 times a week, had worked my way up to about a third of a mile each time, and really was in the groove (although, for some reason, I could only swim on my back.) Then, COVID lockdown. No Y. No pool.

Which brings us to 2022-2023. The year the Rocinantes took to the road. In Europe, we started walking. Seriously walking. No car. Walked every day – to the groceries, to coffee shops, to sites. London, Paris, Helsinki. Walking. We lost weight and our lab results were terrific. Yay! I did develop hip bursitis and a spur on my foot, but that summer I had both looked at and treatment commenced. The next 5 months in the USA were a bit of a backslide into automobile habits, but when we got to Melbourne the serious walking started up again. Using walking sticks I bought in Seattle, the muscles and joints that objected started to feel better. The sticks eventually became unnecessary.

When we got to Auckland in April, 2023, I found a pool! For $10NZD (about $6USD) a visit, I could swim, use the locker, steam room, sauna and hot tub. The pool - named Olympic Pool, was built in 1950 for Commonwealth games. It was a short bus ride from our place. Originally an outdoor pool, it is now enclosed. I started going 2-3 times a week. I was especially inspired by the many Chinese elders who swam there - the same people were there every time I went. They looked to be in their 70s, 80s, & maybe even 90s. Some swam very slowly. But they were persistent. I got my swimming mojo back.

In Suva, Fiji, they also have an Olympic Pool. This one was built in 1925 and was a whites-only colonial sea-bath pool. In 1956 the pool was opened to all races, and in 1963 it hosted the first Pacific games. In 1972 it was converted to Olympic length (50 meters). There is a newer olympic-size pool in Suva but it was undergoing renovations when we were there. But this pool was great - 50 meters in length, this was more sparsely populated, making it easy to swim my laps. The cost was $3FJD for a swim and $5FJD for a cubicle to store my clothes and wallet. Total cost in USD - about $3USD. And, I got a two-for-one exercise regime, since I could walk to the pool and back. It was about 2km each way.

In Singapore, there was a short-length pool in the hotel. It was fine, but hard to swim laps in such a short pool. However, I was able to work on my strokes and got my front crawl back! Funny how coordination issues can work themselves out, even decades later! We were only there a week, then moved into an apartment in Kuala Lumpur with two pools, both 25 meters in length. Now able to swim front and back strokes, I am working back up to my third of a mile workouts 4-5 times a week. There is something especially wonderful about swimming under the open sky, from a protected pool space. You can see the buildings and the sky and the clouds. The air is fresh. This apartment also has a fitness center that Paul has been using, and saunas and spa tubs that we haven't yet figured out. We are walking a lot - most days, we walk to the monorail, ride to someplace interesting where we walk around. When we take tours, we walk even more. On one of the tours in Singapore, we recorded 14,000 steps on our phones!

For the first time in my life, my lifestyle is coordinated with exercise. It makes sense to walk to the grocery, to the cinema, to sites. It is easy to go to the pool floor and swim. My bursitis has eased, my feet are healthy, and my blood sugar is down. I feel better. So go you chicken fat, go away, go you chicken fat go!

I came across this wonderful song by Louden Wainwright about swimming. I decided to try it out on my ukelele. You can see me sing it here.

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Unsure how I missed this when first published! Love the photos from the 70s. Such an inspiration!

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