Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The sport isn’t just about extreme jumping. It also focuses on balance and agility, which are important for avoiding injury as people age.
In a 10,000-square-foot facility full of crisscrossing metal pipes in Alexandria, Virginia, kids swing from one bar to the next. They bounce off walls and somersault into a foam pit in the back. Near the front, a guy in his 20s leaps across the room from one vaulting box to another. At one point, he does a backflip.
Among the crowd at the Urban Evolution parkour gym is 51-year-old Dan Scheeler. The only thing that makes him stand out among the younger crowd is his full, greying beard. Scheeler easily scales an eight-foot wall before “circling over” the ledge and landing lightly back on the ground. That’s one of his favorite moves, he says. It could come in handy if he ever finds himself stuck on the roof, an onlooker jokes with him.
Parkour—a free-running, acrobatic sport that uses the built environment as an obstacle course—is a physically demanding (and sometimes downright dangerous) practice. That’s just one reason why most of its practitioners, or traceurs, tend to be young. Resilience and flexibility tend to decline with age; leaping off concrete obstacles can be unkind to older joints. So it’s unusual to see someone Scheeler’s age doing a discipline known for daredevil moves like jumping off buildings and backflipping off walls.
Parkour isn’t just about jumping, though. It’s also about knowing how to land—or, said another way, knowing how to fall. And as more of America’s 76 million Baby Boomers hit retirement age—with 10,000 turning 65 every day—some parkour groups are introducing a modified version of this trendy urban movement practice to keep older adults active, and to teach them instincts that could save them from death or serious injury during a fall.
Their mission is a worthy one, meant to tackle a real public health concern: Falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among U.S. residents 65 and up. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of fatal falls among older people rose by 30 percent between 2007 and 2016, jumping from 47 deaths per 100,000 to 61.6 deaths per 100,000.
A nonfatal fall can be similarly alarming, causing injuries that significantly diminish a person’s quality of life. Broken bones, hip fractures, head injuries, and the like limit people’s physical functions and can have a lasting psychological impact.
“Many older adults who have experienced a fall, or know someone who has, develop this fear of falling, which can restrict their activity,” says Kathy Cameron, director of the Falls Prevention Resource Center at the National Council on Aging. “And the less active they are, the more their balance and muscle strength will decline, which puts them at greater risk of [falling again] and of social isolation and depression.”
That’s why Blake Evitt, a 31-year-old who runs Parkour Generations Boston, says parkour can and should be accessible to everyone. His group is one chapter of a national organization, Parkour Generations America, and is offering an eight-day parkour class in Brookline, Massachusetts, starting in January, aimed at adults ages 50 and up. That class is advertised in a local course catalogue for adults as teaching “how to avoid falls, or how best to fall if it happens, [and] how to turn obstacles into opportunities.”
Parkour is about progression, he says, which means moves can be modified to each individual’s ability. That means someone as athletic as Scheeler can train alongside a beginner who’s just trying out something new. Age shouldn’t be a limit; Evitt says his group has trained someone in their 80s.
“A lot of what we do is not jumping in between buildings and doing flips and tricks,” he says. “It’s strengthening [your body], having fun with movement, and adapting to the environment.”
At Urban Evolution in Alexandria, Scheeler is an instructor for 401PK, a class for adults ages 35 and up. During my visit, though, he’s a student, and he joins five other adults in their 40s and 50s as they take turns jumping over a hip-high horizontal bar—a move called the assisted lazy vault—and learning the “knee hook” technique that’s supposed to catch their fall. Some like Scheeler breeze through the moves, while others require a bit more coaching from the instructor and gym owner, 46-year-old Salil Maniktahla.
They move on to tumbling, each pretending to trip over a ledge. Maniktahla guides them through two kinds of rolls: the forward roll and the sideways roll—or as he likes to call it, the “burrito roll.” The key is to avoid that thud when you fall. And while it’s not always possible to avoid injuries, moves like these can at least mitigate the impact.
“The short answer is that the more you do it, the better you are at falling,” Maniktahla says. “The more you practice, the more you’re going to know what to do.”
Teaching older people how to fall better has always been a challenge, Cameron cautions: Falls happen in a split second. Though that’s not to discredit parkour; she’s hopeful that with enough research on such classes, they can be added to the list of the NCOA’s recommended activities. After all, she says, offering a variety of options is key.
Her group, with the help of federal funding, works with local communities to bring other evidence-based fall prevention programs. One, called “A Matter of Balance,” teaches older adults how to fall-proof their homes and trains professionals to identify at-risk individuals. It also teaches simple, low-impact exercises that can be done at home—like leg extensions, knee raises, the arm chair push—and with groups, like tai chi.
“It puts them in control,” Cameron says. “It’s really a behavior change and empowerment program to help people with practical strategies for fall prevention.”
And while parkour isn’t NCOA-approved (yet), Cameron says any form of exercise is good—as long as participants know their bodies’ limitations. She adds that people should be thinking about fall prevention as early as their 50s.
Evitt believes getting adults to “fall better” starts with changing how people move, which will later impact their instincts when they find themselves in an unexpected situation. In his organization’s classes, there won’t be any tumbling. Instead he’ll teach them to be comfortable being close to the ground, on their hands and knees (known as quadrupedal movements), and to move in all different directions.
“Adults exist in a single direction of movement, and it’s always forward,” he says. “We very rarely move backwards or sideways or up and down, while crawling. That’s become totally foreign.” Yet that’s the first thing we learn as babies.
In a way, both Evitt and Maniktahla are teaching fall prevention by teaching their students to move like they once did as children. “For many adults, when was the last time you actually played on a playground? So you become very stiff and upright,” says Terri Breslin, 46, who’s also an instructor at Urban Evolution. “You’re just sort of relearning what you used to do as a kid.”
Both Breslin and Scheeler say they got into the sport after watching their kids do it. Breslin wanted the strength training, and Scheeler was just getting back into fitness. “It was a lot more entertaining to jump and climb on stuff than to run on the treadmill,” he says. Both have been at it for five years now.
Then there’s 48-year-old Tony Lopez, who’s been jumping alongside Scheeler this whole time. “I don’t have any kids, but I'm a kid,” he says. “I’ve been jumping and climbing on things all my life.”