With Parkinson’s, He’s ‘Fitter and Stronger Than Ever’

A wealth manager using CrossFit and other techniques to manage his disease is living his second half of life with gusto.  

By Jerilyn Klein

Editor’s Note: Scott Hanley, a partner at True Potential Wealth Management LLP in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at 50. In this Q&A, he discusses his personal journey and how it’s changed his approach to broaching the topic of health with clients.

Jerilyn Klein: You started experiencing Parkinson’s symptoms at 50. At any point, did you think this was something simply related to aging, or did you immediately suspect something was wrong?

Scott Hanley: I never considered it to be aging. I had previously had prolapsed discs in my back and pain in my left hand/arm/leg so I was used to them feeling a bit funky. But I knew something wasn’t right and when I got my diagnosis, I wasn’t overly surprised.

Before & After
In a CrossFit video, you said that you took your diagnosis as a wakeup call to get in shape by exercising, “knocking out the crappy carbs,” and reducing sugar. You’ve also said you try to learn something new every day, that you want to make your exercises as complex as possible, and that you began gravitating to the exercises that make you think. In addition to alleviating your Parkinson’s symptoms, what other benefits has CrossFit provided you with?

CrossFit has stopped me from:

  1. Falling over.
  2. Dropping things.
  3. Being unable to put a key in a lock, and other activities of daily living.
  4. Unbearable leg cramps which prevented me from sleeping.
  5. Sleep deprivation and cognitive failure.
  6. Erectile dysfunction.
  7. Occasional urinary incontinence.
  8. The list goes on.

Other than Parkinson’s disease, CrossFit has made me functionally fit for later years in life. Chronic illnesses are the biggest threat to the Western world’s healthcare systems. CrossFit’s stated aim is to improve endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy. I’ll be able to lift my grocery bags, my future grandchildren, get up after a fall (we call that a burpee), etc.

It has also helped me reframe nutrition and what I put into my body — I’m not obsessed with this (hey, I’m Irish — so of course I enjoy a drink) but it’s way better. Losing 36 pounds and keeping it off feels good also.

Besides CrossFit, what cognitively stimulating activities have you added to your daily or weekly routine?

At the start of this in March 2020, I would just consider if there was a more cognitively difficult way of all and anything I was doing. Taking the dog for a walk? Why not go to an area where the path is uneven and natural, where you have to think about where you step. Basic everyday tasks? Use your left/non-dominant hand.

With regard to CrossFit, “You came for the fitness and stayed for the community.” Why do you think it’s so important to have social connections?

Humans are social animals and the vast majority of us need and benefit from being part of a tribe. CrossFit is next-level tribe and community. It is not like “going to the gym”; forget your normal image of going to a conventional commercial gym. You are always in a small group of people, usually the same group … I’m a regular 7 a.m. CrossFit gym goer and most of the time 80% of the people there are also regular 7 a.m.’ers. We have our 7 a.m. posse within our tribe. CrossFit WODs (workout of the day) are programmed so they can be scaled back to accommodate any level of fitness or strength, whilst achieving the same stimulus.

Scott Hanley
Scott Hanley

This scaling means that athletes are experiencing the same at any given moment. I might be at my limit at X speed on a bike or rower when Colm next to me is at 2X. I might be lifting 100 pounds and Paul’s lifting 200. It doesn’t matter, we’re all experiencing the same relative to our personal abilities in the moment. That creates a sense of being part of a team that I have not experienced since being a British Army Officer in my 20s. The person that finishes last will be getting the most support and applause.

All of this makes for a strong social connection which we all need, consciously or unconsciously.

You were very private about your illness and waited several years to tell your friends and your daughters. Would you do that again, if you had the chance to do that over?

Yes and no – I wouldn’t tell everyone immediately. I would wait until I’ve got my head round it and my mindset squared away first, but I would tell my children and the people closest to me much sooner.

Were you able to continue working and seeing clients with your illness?

I am very client facing but the majority of the time my symptoms were predictable and mostly when at rest/in the evening so my professional life was unaffected. I obviously considered how the disease might impact my work life, but I didn’t dwell on it and now it’s a non-issue.

What were your immediate thoughts after diagnosis regarding your career and your family’s financial future?

I had reasonable Critical Illness Insurance coverage, which was a blessing and a firm reminder of the necessity of this type of insurance. The policy had been running 19 years at that point. But Parkinson’s wasn’t going to kill me and it was unlikely to prevent me from working so I was not overly concerned.

Did you take any steps to get your financial and legal papers in order?

None were needed, my financial and legal papers were all in order anyway.

What suggestions do you have for financial advisors who are working with clients age 50+ who may be experiencing difficult medical diagnoses or have a family member who is?

That’s a tricky one as you’re drifting into a very private space, but we all have clients that share more with us than they share with their wife/husband/priest etc. I think one thing we can do is to make sure they see the positive side of their position or financial affairs. Modern culture and a lot of media love to focus on misery. Screw that, being miserable is a choice.

“Modern culture and a lot of media love to focus on misery. Screw that, being miserable is a choice.”

Do you think financial advisors should try to broach health issues with their clients if they observe that they seem to be having a difficult time physically and/or cognitively?

I now believe the answer is yes, but would never have said this previously because I would not have been a good role model or example. So you pay $XXXXX on your healthcare, which will fix you when you’re broken — but you won’t spend $X to prevent this? Hmmm!

Is there a delicate way to do this, and to let them know they care, without being nosy?

I don’t have an answer for this, but it’s easy for me to do as there has been such widespread media coverage of my story that a conversation nearly always opens up. If it doesn’t, I bring it up as I know that they may or will hear about my story and some may think, “Do I want an ill/disabled person to manage my wealth?” The irony is that I’m fitter and stronger than ever, have had every test imaginable including cognition, intelligence, coronary health, etc., and I’m off the scale on all this. I’m probably better placed than many 50-something advisors, but sadly some will prejudge and label people, so I grab that by the horns straight up.

You’ve said, “I’m pretty good about not dwelling on the future, but my head isn’t in the sand. I’m eyes wide open, super informed.” How have you struck that balance, and is there any advice you’d give to others to help achieve that?

Mindset, it’s all about mindset and as I’ve already said, being miserable is a choice. Worrying about stuff … does it help?

To hear Scott tell his story, click here.

Jerilyn Klein is editorial director of Rethinking65.

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