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A Path Unexpected – Parkinson’s Disease

If someone told me seven years ago that I’d be a Certified Personal Trainer, I would have said, “no way.”  At 57 years old, married, three adult children, two grandchildren, nearing the end of my career in an engineering management position, I was looking forward to retirement. However, a neurologist told me seven years ago that the twitch in my left thumb was the beginning of a resting tremor and the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Those words and the diagnosis that went with it, felt like I was kicked in the gut, and my path from that point forward was forever altered.  

Parkinson’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder with symptoms that generally develop slowly over years. The progression of symptoms is often a bit different from one person to another due to the diversity of the disease. People with PD may experience tremor, mainly at rest, bradykinesia, limb rigidity, gait and balance problems along with other symptoms, not often visible to others.

Approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease each year. While Parkinson’s itself is not fatal, disease complications can be serious. 

The cause remains largely unknown and although there is no cure, and research continues, treatment options vary. Typically it is treated with medication and there are surgical options as well. 

After being diagnosed, however, I learned that our best offense to stay healthy and in front of our symptoms is through daily exercise, proper nutrition and a positive mindset.  These three elements of lifestyle have been proven to slow the progression and even reverse symptoms in people diagnosed with PD.

So, how did I find the path to become a Personal Trainer?  

The year following my diagnosis (2014) I was being treated by a Physical Therapist for cervical radiculopathy (a nerve impingement) in my neck causing severe pain down my left arm.  Her treatment over a period of eight weeks resolved the condition without surgery, for which I was grateful,  and while undergoing this treatment, we began to talk about my Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis.  She described a treatment certification she had just completed called LSVT “Big”, something I hadn’t heard of at the time.  LSVT “Big” is a therapy developed for people with Parkinson’s Disease that is intended to slow, stop or even reverse the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms. The concepts are focused on high intensity of movement, amplitude to improve range of motion, and calibration, which is a method for your  mind to recognize how your body should be moving and how not to move like a person with Parkinson’s Disease.  After my four-week session, I embraced “Big” movement as a daily therapy and still continue today.  I found that movement focused on intensity and amplitude has helped me to continue with movement patterns even though my symptoms have progressed.  

As I continued to explore more holistic options to addressing my symptoms, I developed a renewed interest in proper nutrition.  I had already been attempting to lose some weight and at the time I had reduced from 220 lbs in November 2013 to around 205 lbs in May 2015.  I began a diet based on Paleo principles which focused on whole foods (meats, vegetables) moving away from foods containing additives, preservatives, gluten and dairy. Within about 90 days, my body began to respond and my energy levels improved.

Around the same time, my wife Catherine, had started training again with her former personal trainer, Rhonda Huff.  Rhonda had spent three years living and training in New York City and had returned to her business in Newport News in September 2015.  Catherine knew how hard I had been working to focus on exercise and nutrition and mentioned to me that I may want to talk to Rhonda.  I met with Rhonda and began training twice a week in a program that focused on improving my movement patterns, posture and strength. While training, Rhonda began to focus on my nutrition in very specific ways to improve my neurological health. I began to learn and see results by improving my “gut health” and move to “detox” my body to help rid my body of some of the very toxins that were contributing to my condition with Parkinson’s Disease.  I focused on Rhonda’s teaching to “Just Eat Real FOOD”©. F-Free of anti-nutrients, O-organic when possible, O-original in form, and D-Dense in Nutrients. 

So, after continuing to train with Rhonda I began to clearly see a direct connection between the lifestyle changes I had embraced through exercise and a focus on proper nutrition to how I felt overall. My Parkinson’s Disease symptoms, though they existed, were manageable. My strength and energy levels (also related) had improved significantly, and my body found a natural weight of 175 lbs where I remain today.  All of these factors lead to an improved mindset as well. 

Another element of my life I was working to bring focus to was stress.  In addition to life stress, people with Parkinson’s Disease may experience anxiety as part and parcel of the disease itself, caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Anxiety is a very common non-motor feature of Parkinson’s Disease and is often accompanied by depression. Anxiety can also fluctuate throughout the day along with dopamine levels, with anxiety experienced most acutely during OFF periods. Stress and anxiety can exacerbate symptoms as the demands on the brain can cause symptoms, such as tremors to become worse.  Therefore, moving forward with this insight, I began to look at retirement options and then the big question I asked Rhonda was, “Is it feasible for someone my age and with my condition to consider being a personal trainer and work here?”  Her response was “absolutely it’s feasible”.  Her response led me to pursue my personal trainer certification which I received in December 2016 and began as a trainer with Rhonda in February 2017.  That decision led me to a path to retire from my full time career in March of 2018 and continue working as a trainer at Rhonda Huff FIT. 

So, back to my first statement, “If someone told me seven years ago that I’d be a Certified Personal Trainer, I would have said, “no way.” However, today I’m 64 years old, working with others one on one, teaching and training clients who have a range of goals and challenges.  I’ve been able to bring hope and healing to people I would have never met without the opportunity to go down that path and it has also provided me the opportunity to focus on my health with focus on daily exercise, proper nutrition and a positive mindset. In life we are given challenges and sometimes those challenges provide an amazing opportunity to go down a Path Unexpected.  

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