Earlier this year, Priscilla McMahan, 77, walked into a grocery store with her husband and barely made it to the produce section before she fell.
“I think the floor was slick, and my feet just went out under me,” says McMahan, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. The fall occurred so quickly she doesn’t remember exactly what happened, other than landing on her side and feeling a little embarrassed. But she recovered quickly, unscathed.
“I was not the least bit hurt,” McMahan says. She attributes her resilience to training in parkour – a sport generally associated with extreme athletes boasting ninja-like skills, not septuagenarians.
Developed in France in the late 1980s, parkour is the practice of using body movements to efficiently and creatively overcome obstacles in the environment. Devotees consider parkour as much a mindset as a physical exercise; their surroundings are big playgrounds with hurdles to move on, through, over and around, using a mixture of running, jumping, climbing and rolling. Today, many cities have parkour meetups, and there’s a push to make the sport more available to people of all ages and abilities. There’s even parkour for dogs.
But what’s perhaps most surprising is the growth of parkour programming for people 50 and older.
“The common thought was that parkour should be accessible to everyone,” says Blake Evitt, director of Parkour Generations Boston, who trained with the sport’s founders in France. He says in Europe, the classes always included one or two students with gray hair, versus in the U.S., where the focus is on adrenaline-fueled YouTube videos of young men.
“You say ‘parkour for seniors,’ and it hits the brain weird, like that’s the absolute opposite of what seniors should be doing,” says Sean Hannah, president and acting executive director of PK Move, a nonprofit organization in Northern Virginia that focuses largely on teaching parkour to underserved populations. Co-founded in 2015 by Nancy Lorentz, the organization reached several thousand people annually before the COVID-19 pandemic, including special-needs children and residents of public housing; free instructional videos are available on their website.
Hannah, 39, who wrote the curriculum for PK Silver – PK Move’s parkour-based fitness and falls prevention program for adults 50 and older – says the message for seniors is that falls don’t happen when you’re doing something drastic. They happen during daily activities, so it’s important to practice fall prevention and mitigation.
Precision trainers are used during a PK Silver class outdoors. Balance is a key skill in both parkour and fall prevention.(Mark Albert C. Altabano)
“What if you have to move backwards?” he says. “What if you need to step over something while carrying an object? We break it down by steps. That’s as playful to seniors as jumping across rooftops is for someone like me.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 4 adults aged 65 and older fall every year, and falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries in older Americans, resulting in more than $31 billion in Medicare costs annually. Falls occur as a result of diminished strength, balance and flexibility, and a fear of falling often leads seniors to an increasingly sedentary life.
But traceurs – those who practice parkour – claim their discipline is more fun, which is what attracted McMahan three years ago when she observed a PK Silver class at a nearby park. During the pandemic, she’s been joining a weekly virtual class. In one recent session, Hannah renamed himself “Coach Seanobi” on Zoom and addressed the half-dozen seniors with an, “All right, goofballs!”
Many class exercises involved executing two things simultaneously and injected the spirit of parkour, if not actual parkour moves: Students side-planked against a wall while “drawing” letters in the air with their inside foot; squatted in a horse-riding position while passing a heavy book back and forth through their legs; and tried to silently move a ring of keys in wide arcs as a shoulder mobility exercise.
Hannah’s classes are far from boring, which is his criticism of traditional fall prevention programs. Instead of a ho-hum, single-leg balance, students stand on one leg and use a sock like a nunchaku – a traditional martial arts weapon. Hannah says the curriculum not only strengthens muscles and confidence but teaches proprioception – the awareness of where your body is in space – which typically declines with age.
The same PK Silver curriculum has proved a successful offering at community centers serving seniors, including Charles Houston Recreation Center in Alexandria.
“Fall prevention is huge for our seniors – especially the ones who don’t want to get old,” says Lucresha Murphy-Tate, who manages the PARKnership program for the city’s recreation department. “They’re really trying to find ways to stay spunky and keep their youthfulness.”
When Murphy-Tate suggested a parkour class to community center directors several years ago, “they looked at me like I was crazy, like this could be a liability,” she laughs. “I told them it’s not like parkour you see in the movies. These seniors might be balancing or stepping up on a curb – and that can be a big deal.” The city provided PK Move with a matching grant to purchase portable playground-type equipment used for the free classes at parks and community centers.
Goodwin House, a continuing care community in Alexandria, offered its residents weekly parkour classes before the pandemic. “We are always interested in fall prevention,” says fitness manager Leslie LaPlace, who trained to teach the classes. “But it’s not just squats and leg lifts – I’ve done programs like that. This is about how the human body moves through the environment.”
At Goodwin House, students practiced navigating using quadrupedal movement, crawling up a big, foam ramp using their hands and feet – an invaluable skill if you can’t walk up or down stairs. They simulated real-life scenarios – like getting around a fallen tree in a path – by sitting on a chair and swinging their legs over an object, called a sit-and-spin. They performed catch-falls, a movement that teaches students to react to a fall as it happens; they’d start with falling into a nearby wall and increase the difficulty by stepping away from the wall or falling into something lower, like a railing.
LaPlace says parkour “gamifies” the exercises, and she suspects that helps with retention. She also appreciates that every movement is scalable, so it can be simplified or amplified depending on a student’s comfort level. She’s looking forward to teaching a new chair-based program that Hannah is developing later this year.
Dr. Alexei Wong, an assistant professor in health and human performance at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, plans to work with Goodwin House residents for a study on the effects of parkour for older adults. He completed a smaller study with PK Silver students in 2018 that showed the exercises improve cardiovascular health and increase muscular strength and flexibility. Wong says elderly adults tend to have low compliance with traditional aerobic and resistance training and may drop out of the routines in a few days.
“Modified parkour might help keep them motivated because it’s something different,” he says. “They play games, set up obstacle courses, move backwards. It’s a combination of skills, not just one thing.”
Lorentz, the PK Move co-founder, cautions that not all parkour programs are great for seniors. She stresses that for safety, PK Silver does not include some parkour elements – such as actually falling, jumping and vaulting – that other programs for older adults do. Rather, the curriculum includes some less showy and dynamic movements, whether it’s crawling like a sloth or traveling underneath bars.
Other parkour organizations, however, do teach falling in older adult classes, like those at decade-old The Movement Creative in New York City. “We really are experts in falling,” says co-founder Jesse Danger. “We fall all the time.”
Danger says as people age, their worlds become physically smaller and their bodies aren’t exploring at full range – they stop storing things on high shelves or sitting on low chairs. He says parkour is easily adaptable for older adults, and safer than some other programs because the movements are self-directed and based on the person’s limitations. He coaches students to come up with their own novel movement sequences.
“It’s like a tongue twister, sometimes you stumble through the words,” he says. “It’s the same with movement – you might stumble through at first.”
In Boston, Evitt, who has taught in-person and virtual parkour classes to older adults, has been working with the local parks department to create public recreational spaces that are more age-inclusive. “There aren’t a lot of spaces for older adults to be active,” he says.
Inspired by Lorentz’s success with older students, Evitt started a similar program for seniors in 2018, which his mother, now 68, promptly joined. Before the pandemic, Parkour Generations held several weekly indoor classes for students over 50 in community centers around Boston, with exercises similar to those he teaches his younger students. In the winter, outdoor classes focused on navigating snowy and icy surfaces and getting down to the ground quickly, or bailing, which Evitt explains is falling with control.
Evitt says he enjoys watching his mother engage with her environment since she started parkour.
“She’s much more likely to climb over a railing or balance on a low wall while we’re walking through town,” he says. “Parkour is about embracing a physical challenge. It’s seeing something and wondering, ‘Could I do that?’ And then having the courage and confidence to do it in a public space.”