Overcoming obstacles is part of the human predicament. And unfortunately, the older you get the more your body seems to conspire against you. Age-related conditions like loss of muscle mass, decreased vision, and joint stiffness, can make it ever harder for some older adults to be safe in the world.
With that in mind, take minute to think about the definition of parkour.
Parkour is the discipline of overcoming obstacles with speed and efficiency. Most people associate it with teenagers and young adults. However, there is no reason you can’t apply it to the entire human lifespan.
Here are five parkour concepts that relate to healthy aging:
Scaling of Abilities
Vaulting a waist-high wall can seem out-of-reach to parkour beginners. However, by training a series of precursor movements, even the most fearful student will be able to get over the obstacle.
You might need to start by hoisting yourself onto the wall, sitting on it, and then swinging your legs over. From there, you might transition to arms and both feet, but no contact with your butt. As you get stronger your level of support decreases, from two feet to one foot, and then no feet. After enough training, you can eventually vault the wall with only one hand in contact.
Scaling is the term used to describe the process above, wherein you work through a series preliminary movements tailored to the level of the athlete. Parkour coaches use scaling to help their students build strength and confidence. The same framework can also be used to help older adults improve their level of functional mobility.
Take for example the difficulty many elderly have with getting out of a chair. It’s not uncommon for some people to be so weak in their lower body that they need to use both hands to push themselves out of a chair. Sometimes they actually need physical assist, like a mechanized lift or the help of a caregiver.
Regardless of the level of impairment, scaling can be used to improve a one’s abilities. In terms of getting out of a chair, a first step can be to raise the height of the seat with one or more pillows. Once the person can confidently stand up from the new position, the seat is height is gradually lowered (over days or weeks) until returning to the starting level.
It might take time, but this strategy is a great way to build the muscle to accomplish any number of challenging tasks. You can scale your way into climbing a flight of stairs, doing yardwork, or even unloading the dishwasher.
Falling down is part of life. In parkour, athletes tend to fall when they miss a jump, slip on an obstacle, or simply lose their balance. It is such a common occurrence, that coaches always train their students how to fall without getting hurt.
Beginners are taught to disperse the impact, favor rounded body shapes, and roll when necessary. By understanding when to anticipate a fall, and how to recover without injury, parkour athletes condition themselves for a lifetime of safe training.
Now, compared to younger athletes, when seniors fall down it can often be a matter of life or death. In fact, according to the CDC, falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries in adults over 65-years old. Many factors contribute to an older adult’s fall risk, including poor vision, neuropathy, generalized weakness, and drug interactions.
As a society we have done a poor job of protecting our older citizens from fall-related injuries. Yet, by identifying what factors put an adult at risk of falling, he or she becomes better prepared for the world.
Thus, like parkour athletes, older adults need to understand when and how they are at risk for falling. Once the factors are understood, steps toward fall prevention can be taken. Likewise, with the help of an experienced practitioner, older adults can be taught to recover from, and avoid an injury when a fall does happen.
Experienced parkour practitioners always perform a safety check of their environment before starting to train. They know that wet concrete, dusty surfaces, and loose obstacles all contribute to the risk of injury. By understanding the hazards around them, they minimize their risk.
This same habit is useful for older adults. By taking a few moments each day to identify the risk factors in your environment, you become much safer. Is the sidewalk in front of your house covered in wet leaves or ice? Could you trip on the many throw rugs or extension cords in your living room? The more you understand the external factors affecting your mobility, the more secure you become in the world.
The Importance of Balance
Tiptoeing across an overhead beam might be terrifying to some people, but it’s childs play to a veteran parkour athlete. That’s because a refined sense of balance is crucial in parkour.
Without good balance, landing jumps, crawling across railings, and scaling high obstacles would be impossible. But note though, that balance is a skill that is cultivated through practice. From low to high surfaces, and simple to complex movements, parkour athletes are always working to improve their stability.
Aging gracefully also demands that you continually work on your balance. For some older adults, simply turning around to see what is over one’s shoulder can lead to a fall. Standing on one leg to put on a shoe can be another tremendous challenge. Fortunately, when you put in the time and effort to improve your balance, the results can be astounding.
Over my 15-year career in physical therapy, I have spent thousands of hours helping 70, 80, and even 90 year olds improve their stability. And guess what, either you use it or you lose it.
I once worked with a 99-year-old woman who, after some training, could balance on one leg for over a minute!
Start working on your balance today, and make it a lifelong habit.
Focus on Power
A high horsepower car ramps from 0-60 miles per hour much faster than a less powerful car. In the same way, a skilled parkour athlete can speed through an obstacle course much faster than an untrained beginner. Power is fundamental to parkour, and without it you wouldn’t be able to clear massive gaps or stride between distant foot placements.
That’s why the best parkour athletes continually work to improve their power generation. They work on sprinting, jumping, and the ability to move with explosiveness.
One sad fact of aging is that your ability to generate power gradually declines over time. The older you get, the longer it may take to hustle across a busy street or get up from the floor. And, the longer it takes to complete these tasks, the greater the obstacle they become.
Hence, one final aspect to successful aging is that you need to make an effort to stay powerful. Without counteracting it, it’s natural to lose muscle mass as you age. The good news is that you can still build muscle through every decade of your life. The more you work to maintain or even improve your speed with everyday skills, the healthier you remain.
Although the tug of time may be pulling on you, don’t slow down!
The role of parkour as it relates healthy aging has yet to be fully explored, but the opportunity is immense. If you want a glimpse of the future, watch the documentary To Be and To Last.
Life presents countless obstacles, and the older you get the more they seem to pile up. Incorporating a few parkour concepts into your routine might not be a fountain of youth, but it’ll at least help you live fully.
By the way, do you know of other 60, 70, and 80 year olds who are redefining what healthy aging looks like? Post a link below or share your stories with me on Twitter @benmusholt. The world needs more images of older adults staying active!
Great stuff as always, Ben! For those that want to hear Ben talk about some of these principles – click on the following link to hear him on the Senior Rehab Podcast: