Updated: Nov 30, 2021
I am so inspired by Jimmy Choi that I keep asking myself "What would Jimmy do?" when I face even small challenges. Jimmy's accomplishments and approach to life make me feel like anything is possible—even for regular people like you and me.
My bet is Jimmy's story will remind you of the precious opportunities you have in your life, and give you the motivation to make the most of them.
Jimmy was a regular guy with a job in software when he was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson's nearly 20 years ago. After a period of denial and despair, he dug deep within and learned to manage the disease and his life with discipline, grit, and an open mind.
Jimmy found ways to spend better quality time with his family, raise public awareness for Parkinson's, and help and motivate others through a unique combination of athletic competitions (including being an American Ninja Warrior contestant and earning two Guinness World Records), and leveraging technology (both TikTok and 3D printing).
Jimmy's story inspires me to better manage the challenges in my own life, move forward one step at a time, and balance pragmatism and optimism for unbelievable results.
You can watch the video of our conversation right here, or read the transcript below.
Welcome to the "AdaRose Digital Health and Wellness Video Podcast." I'm Lygeia Ricciardi, your host, and our guest today is Jimmy Choi. Jimmy is an athlete, a patient advocate, and a motivational speaker.
Before I start, I want to say, if you're interested in the intersection of digital health and wellness, and just health and wellness and technology generally, in your life, please subscribe to the AdaRose YouTube channel, as well as to our channels on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. So, with that, welcome, Jimmy.
Hi, how are you?
Who is Jimmy Choi? (0:38)
Good, it's so great to have you! So Jimmy is an athlete, a patient advocate for Parkinson's, a motivational speaker, and he's also—this is my description and I think you'll see why—a creative person who's not afraid to try new things, including using technology in new ways. And just to give my audience a little bit of context for why I invited him to participate, really two reasons.
The first is I was incredibly inspired by his story and I think there's a lot in it for people regardless of their health condition, or even their interest in particular types of technology, it's a universal human story that, you know, he's got a spirit of optimism, discipline, and relentless commitment to overcoming obstacles that really, I think, hopefully you will find motivating as a listener.
And the other reason, since we have this emphasis on digital technology and how to use it in your life, I think Jimmy is really creative in how he's used, in particular social media and TikTok, but also he's recently inspired some of his fans to use 3D printing. So there are a couple of technology stories in here that we'll touch on. So Jimmy, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Yeah, I'm 46 years old. I'm married and I have two wonderful kids, a boy and a girl, Karina and Mason. You know, and one of the more unfortunate things about me is that I was actually diagnosed with Young-Onset Parkinson's back in 2003, so that's, that's 18 years ago when I was diagnosed, I was only 27 at the time. And uh, like many 27-year olds, I didn't know what to do with that information, and unfortunately I kind of just ignored myself, and ignored my progression for the first eight years until I had that one rock bottom moment.
And we can get into that a little bit more detail later, but that rock bottom moment was falling down an entire flight of stairs with my infant son. And, you know, just that, that moment itself woke me up. It made me realize that I had become a burden to my family and that I really needed to, at that point in my life, take a look at myself and decide one of two things. Number one, completely give up, or number two, I can try to do something about it, even if it's just a little bit, try to do something about it.
And since that moment, that was in 2010, since that moment, I have taken the idea of doing just a little bit more each day, whether it's participating in clinical trials, or using exercise, or different methods to help me live a better life in general while living with Parkinson's, just trying to do a little bit more each day. And through that I've become an athlete, as you mentioned, which I was, you know, I was an athlete growing up in high school, but when I took that fall, that moment when I took the fall, I was 240 pounds, I walked with a cane because I kept falling over.
But since that moment, this one, this doing more each day has brought me to this point which was, which is now I'm an ultra endurance athlete. I've completed 50-mile marathons, multiple standard marathons, 100-mile bike rides, hundreds of half marathons. I've competed on "American Ninja Warrior '' four times, and I'm also currently a two-time world record— "Guinness World Record"—holder for push ups and for burpees.
What is Parkinson’s Disease and what are some challenges a person with Parkinson’s faces? (4:13)
So that is awesome, and your athletic record is really impressive and diverse. And that is true, even regardless of the fact that you are at the same time, a person living with Parkinson's. I wanna make sure people understand a little bit who may not be familiar with the condition. Like, what are the challenges for someone with Parkinson's? How is it different from before you were, you know, before you had it?
Yeah, the thing about Parkinson's is, it's a very slow progressive disease. So I actually don't know when I started exhibiting symptoms because now that I think back, I actually have, I have actually had symptoms even when I was in college.
So, you know, the progression of this, exactly when it started, I really have no idea and most people don't know. By the time you feel different, by the time you can feel your symptoms, you've already lost, or a person with Parkinson's has already lost, about 60% of the ability to produce dopamine. So, you know, Parkinson's, every time people, when I talk about it, people immediately think of an older person. They immediately think of...
Yeah, most people are diagnosed much later in life right, 60's, 70's, and beyond?
Yeah, the average onset is 60 plus, you know, and only about 20% of people who are diagnosed with Parkinson's are considered Young-Onset, or diagnosed before the age of 40. But yeah, like most people would just immediately think of the older person. They always, everybody thinks of tremors, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Living with Parkinson's, it's–the way I like to describe it–it's basically a slow torture. Parkinson's won't kill you, right, it doesn't take away somebody's life in the sense of death or a terminal disease, but it does slowly rob you of your ability to do things. Move, even think, even speak, so things that people don't realize that could be a part of Parkinson's. Like loss of smell, anything that has to do with movement, including bowel movement, right, these—everything is affected.
So the entire body over time will progress and it will get more and more difficult. So that's one of the things that is really hard for people to grasp, because all they can see are the tremors, they can't see anything else.
Yeah, so at the same time that you're coming to grips with losing functionality, you've trained your body to gain a lot of new functionality.
Jimmy's journey to American Ninja Warrior (6:51)
Talk about that, how that came about. And many people are perhaps familiar with "American Ninja Warrior." Were you racing before that? What was the path that took you there?
The path that took me to "Ninja Warrior," it was actually, you know, as I mentioned when I took that fall down the stairs. One of the first things that I noticed when I started really educating myself about Parkinson's is that there's always, every study, or every clinical trial, someone is always talking about physical activity and I have a movement disorder.
And actually the best thing to do for a movement disorder is just to move, it's just to keep training your body, muscle memory, and just continuously using your muscles so that it doesn't forget how to be used, right? So, but I took that to the extreme, right?
I just, there's studies out, study after study that suggests that high intensity exercise is the only treatment today proven to slow, or even halt progression of Parkinson's. So I figured, you know, if that's going to help, I'm just gonna do it and I'm going to do all of it.
So I started with running, as I mentioned, and then I went into cycling. I mean, let's be honest, when you do something over and over again, it becomes a routine, right, it gets boring. So I started cycling, and then I started swimming, and then when doing all these endurance events became even more and more routine, so to speak, my daughter was really a huge fan of "American Ninja Warrior," and every year she would say, "Hey, dad, you should really try out and try to compete," and then I would give her all the excuses in the book.
"Are you kidding me, I would lose balance. I fall just walking to the kitchen and back, right, I don't have upper body strength. I can run, but I don't have upper body strength." But you know what I realized, what I was doing, finally, and this was in 2017, was that I was giving her all the excuses in the book and here I am telling other people, who are starting to learn about my story, and who I'm trying to motivate to start moving, that to stop making excuses, right? So I'm not preaching what I'm not listening to, what I'm preaching, so to speak.
So I took that upon myself, and I said, "You know what, my daughter is right. I've given her all the excuses in the book," and she's like, you know, "What more excuses do you have?" So I actually applied and tried out for the show really just to make her happy. But to my surprise, they called me and they gave me a shot and I did well in my first year, and then I continued to build upon that success, I continued to build upon, and learn, from the experts of the sport, to improve myself, and I think that's one of the reasons why they kept bringing me back.
What does your healthcare team look like today? (10:03)
So, I am curious about something that I think is universal to any of us dealing with a whole lot of different conditions. It sounds like you had a moment, first you had a period of denial, which I can totally understand, where you just basically weren't dealing with it at all.
But then at a certain point, after maybe that falling-down-stairs-moment, you started researching. So it wasn't actually, and you learned that exercise had huge benefits in mitigating the life-limiting effects essentially of Parkinson's. As you speak, it's not your doctors who were saying, "Hey, Jimmy, have you tried running? Hey, Jimmy, you should really be on American Ninja Warrior."
It was like self, well I'm curious. Like what were your doctors saying, were you talking to them about this?
Oh, so let me, you know, right now my care team they're completely behind me, they embrace my craziness, right? But this isn't the first team, the first care team that I tried to put together, and in fact there are still a lot of neurologists, and movement disorder specialists out there, that are a little bit more of the old school variety where they will tell people to take it easy and, you know, just get your affairs in order, enjoy your life now, be prepared to, be prepared for it, to live with the disease for the long haul.
And unfortunately, there are still some neurologists that will speak that way to patients and that's just not the way that I found to be true. When I was diagnosed 18 years ago I was told that I had 10 years, that I would be, that in 10 years I would be in a wheelchair and that my family would have to take care of me. I was never told to exercise, right?
And so you're right doctors weren't telling, but today that's different because of all the research that's been done in the last 18 years, doctors and movement disorder specialists know that exercise is key, and they are telling, right from the get go now, everybody that's newly diagnosed, to get out and move. And it doesn't really, exercise doesn't undo the effects of Parkinson's, you know. For me I just like to tell people that it, you're improving your body so that your body can handle the disease as it progresses better.
That makes sense. It's almost as if you're training like an astronaut, or something, you wanna be in peak performance to go against something that's beyond what you might expect to deal with every day.
Yeah, absolutely, and that applies to everything in life, right? You mentioned astronauts, but I mean if you want to do well on the test, you study, right? If you want to, if you want to do well in a presentation at work, you put your work, you put time into that presentation, you put your research in, and this is no different, living with Parkinson's is no different.
And when I eventually started doing my research then I started learning the things that I need to be doing to be more successful at it. Not necessarily successful at living with Parkinson's, but living my best life with the disease.
What Guinness World records do you hold and how did you get the idea to try for those? (12:34)
So in the list of your impressive athletic achievements is this "Guinness Book of World Records"—talk to me about that. So what do you hold records in, and how did you, what even gave you the idea to try for that record, or those records?
You know, so I hold two world records, one is for burpees and, which everybody loves. And then one, yeah, and then the other one is for pushups. And I'll tell you what I never imagined myself to even try to break a world record. But I would say about three years ago I was still falling, even though I was training a lot, and I've become physically fit, I would still fall.
When I would run I would just tumble over because my legs weren't listening to me, and it just stops moving, a freezing gait happens, or if I'm just walking and then if I'm trying to avoid, you know a LEGO block on the floor, that my kids leave around, and to make that quick turn to the right, or the left, it often trips me up, and then I would fall. So I still fall a lot.
So I started asking myself, you know, what can I do from a fitness perspective to help me in the event of a fall? So if you think about it, that's exactly what it is, a burpee is a controlled fall. You get yourself and your body to the ground, and then you've gotta get yourself up. So I'm able to practice that controlled fall and then I'm able to build strength in getting myself back up off the ground so that wherever I might fall, hopefully I would be able to build the strength to brace, to slow the fall, and then to get back up no matter what to safety, right? So I started doing that about three years ago and I started adding that on a daily basis.
You know I talked about doing a little bit more each day, it's no different with my burpees, I started with just doing 10 a day at a time. And then next thing you know, I'm doing, you know, 20 or 30 and I just kept going from there. So what started out as a, as really a desire to learn a survival skill, because of my falls, that, doing more each day, gave me an opportunity to tell myself that, hey, maybe I am good enough, maybe I'm fast enough, maybe I'm strong enough, to break that world record.
So I trained for it, and then that became a goal of mine, and then I started training for it. And next thing you know, in training for it, I ended up doing, I would do things like the burpee mile. Where you do a burpee, and then you broad jump, and then you do another burpee, and you continue to do that for a mile. And I would do things like doing 2020 pushups, for the year 2020, all in one go, just sort of, just for training purposes.
But ultimately in August of 2020 I did break the world record for number of chest to ground hand release burpees in one minute. So that was a huge moment for me to be able to do that. And then just because I was training so much doing burpees, and pushing myself off the ground, I became really good at pushups.
So this is another opportunity that came along because I was doing something else for something completely different, I got really strong at doing push ups. And then in November of 2020 I broke the world record for lateral side jump push ups. So just imagine, imagine pushing your entire body over a line, or a barrier, from left to right, left to right, left to right, nonstop for an entire minute.
Have you always had such strength and discipline, or is this something you have cultivated over time? (16:03)
That's pretty incredible. I think one of the themes that comes out as you speak is your attention to just your strength and discipline, and I love this message of baby steps and I think that's so important.
I'm curious, before you had Parkinson's, did you apply that same intensity of discipline and sort of model to other areas of your life? Have you been innately doing this forever, or is this something that you've developed more because you've had to focus on it more, or chosen to focus on it more?
To be honest, it depends on who you ask. You know, so the, no, but really, I think in reality I think this developed really more post that rock-bottom, or that traumatic moment with falling down the stairs with my son, I think that my mindset changed that day.
That’s kind of what I wanted to hear, Jimmy, because it means there's hope for all of us.
No, there really is, it's never too late for change, right? People say it's never, when you do something new, and you do something different for the first time, you're uncomfortable, you're scared, right? Because it's new, it's different, but just like anything in life, when you do it over, and over, and over again, it becomes routine, it becomes second nature. So there's always room for change.