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7 Habits of 'Highly Effective' Parkies

If Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” sold more than 25 million copies in 38 languages, how far will this story go if I title it, “7 Habits of ‘Highly Effective’ Parkies”? Let’s find out!

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I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about seven years ago (!), and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve held up well. I’ve worked with two movement disorder specialists (one for six years, the other for just one), and every time I’ve seen them for my four-times-a-year checkup, they frequently gasp as they run me through their routines. “That’s amazing,” they mutter to themselves when, say, I tap my thumb and forefinger on my right hand and then my left. Both hands work perfectly: the thumb and forefinger spread wide apart, then smoothly tap together and spread apart again. Both hands accomplish this without any hesitation or nervous tremors, and both hands maintain a brisk tempo. (Tip: when I have to do this part of the exam, I sing a fast song to myself in my head, like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Hearing the music in my mind causes me to move my fingers in a steady beat like they’re dancing.)

So here are seven habits I’ve found help me! If you have additional habits that work for you, please add them below.

1. Exercise frequently and (if you can) walk everywhere.

I try to work out at least four times a week, and I should really increase that to five or six. I swim laps in our town pool; lift weights at the gym; ride on a spin bike for 60 minutes, pedaling at a cadence of 100 rpm; do yoga and stretching exercises at home; take ping pong lessons; and walk as much as I can. I live in the New York City suburbs, and if I go into Manhattan for the day, I frequently avoid the subway and buses, and just walk from one appointment to another, racking up miles on my feet.

2. Challenge yourself with simple tasks Parkinson’s disease tried to put a stop to.

See the photo at the top of this post?  That’s my right hand, and those are all the keys I carry around with me: keys to the house, to my school building and office, to my gym locker, my car, etc. When I first started getting Parkinson’s symptoms, I couldn’t use my right hand to insert a key into the lock. My hand trembled too much, and I needed my left hand to help guide it. But I challenged myself to regain my right hand’s independence, and, as you can see in the photo, I succeeded. A similar challenge for me is to thrust my right hand in my pants pocket and, by feeling each coin I have there and noting its size and other features, calculate precisely how much loose change I have.

3. Listen to your favorite music on playlists, but play the songs in random order.

Last week’s NY Times had a relevant story about music therapy for cancer patients, but it also mentioned other diseases like Parkinson’s, too. One of the music therapists explains that, “Music lights up neurons between the right and left hemispheres of the brain… It can also aid in neuroplasticity, helping the brain form new connections.” So that’s good. But I want to add that listening to music you like lifts your spirits… and having your iPhone or computer play the songs in random order boosts the rush.

4. Balance what you eat to avoid constipation and its opposite partner in crime, fecal incontinence.

Similarly, time your fluid intake so you avoid bladder urgency when riding long distances on a bus that has no toilet. Shortly after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I struggled through a week of constipation and was shocked by how severe it was. I cured myself by adding lots of flax and chia seeds to my morning oatmeal, and haven’t been constipated since. However, I later had to cut back on these seeds after a few, thankfully private, bouts of fecal incontinence. Now I try to eat a mostly Mediterranean diet, and my gut and I are friends. Similarly, an hour before I leave work, I drink a full glass of water. Then I use the toilet just before I clock out. I’m able to drive 40 minutes to my home without zooming way over the speed limit because my bladder is about to burst.

5. Learn something new.

As I mentioned above, I started taking ping pong lessons, a unique and fantastic experience for me. I find I have to split my attention between what’s going on with the ball and what’s going on with my body, and this feels strange and new. For example, during the lesson I may be standing in the middle of my side of the table, and the instructor may hit the ball to the left of me. I want to move left to intercept it, so I pick up my left foot and shift it over. “No,” my instructor says. “When you move to the left, lift your right foot first.”  This is both counter-intuitive and mind-boggling. I have to pay attention simultaneously to the ball sailing across the table, which I can see, and my right foot, which, being out of sight, I can only feel. Is this an example of creating new neural pathways? I don’t know, but it acts like a breath freshener for my mind.

6. Maintain good sleep hygiene.

I go to bed by 8:00 every night, because my alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m. and I leave home to drive to work by 5:15. I have a set routine I follow each night, which works like a switch to flip my mind into sleep mode. First, I fill my compartmentalized pill tray with the next day’s pills. Then I take all my nighttime meds. I lay out the clothes I will wear to work the next day. I brush my teeth and take a shower. I get in bed and read some fiction, which puts my mind in a sleepy state. And then I fall asleep. When the alarm goes off at 4:00 the next morning, I jump out of bed so I can gulp down the first round of pills. It’s all a routine, and it helps keep my life on track.

(Note: I banished the TV from the bedroom, as it’s anti-soporific.)

7. Socialize and have fun.

I work at a public charter school in the Bronx that is famous for its relaxed and friendly ambiance (as well as very high scores on the state English and math tests). My main job is to coach new teachers, with whom I work side-by-side in the classroom. Thus, I’m always talking with kids as well as the teachers; it’s a highly social scene. Also, I belong to a table tennis group for people with Parkinson’s; the members (including the volunteer instructors who don’t have PD) are friendly, dynamic and energetic, so it doubles as a support group. I also email friends around the world and am active on Facebook. I always try to stay upbeat. “Better upbeat than beat up” is a jokey pun I just invented.

So those are my seven habits as a person living with Parkinson’s disease. Again, if you have questions, feedback or additional recommendations, please comment below.