A few months ago, Jocelyn Siegel of Somerville was sitting in a job interview trying to calm her nerves. “I repeated my mantra: You can do this. It’s easy. You can totally do this,” she recalled.
The mantra worked. Siegel, 61, nailed the job as a program director at a Boston hospital. But she didn’t learn those words from a self-help book or motivational speaker. Instead, it’s something she frequently repeats to herself during her weekly parkour classes, when hopping up a staircase, balancing on a railing, or scaling scaffolding.
Parkour, a sport that traces its roots to the 1990s in cities such as Paris, London, and New York, is usually understood as a high-octane dash through an urban setting, using moves from gymnastics, martial arts, and military maneuvers to move from point A to point B across a built landscape while conquering obstacles such as staircases, embankments, walls, and rooftops. Stunt versions of parkour appear in popular films including “Casino Royale,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and “Tracers”; more ordinary iterations appear on TV shows such as “American Ninja Warrior.”
But while many people know it best from YouTube clips in which lithe teenagers execute heart-stopping leaps across rooftops or shimmy down fire escapes, it is becoming increasingly popular to a new cohort: the fitness-oriented senior crowd, who in the Boston area have discovered this novel form of exercise through classes and groups that take place in communities including Somerville, Arlington, Cambridge, Brookline, Boston, Medford, and Belmont.
Blake Evitt, who opened Parkour Generations Boston in 2012 and is also North American director for its parent company, Parkour Generations Americas, runs numerous classes and workshops designed especially for seniors or anyone who wants a lower-impact but still challenging workout.
“Parkour is about playing with movement,” Evitt said. “It might be running, jumping, or climbing as you overcome obstacles and move your body through a built environment, whether that’s a city street or a public park. It’s a pretty wide-open definition.”
And while traditional parkour might involve a lot of vaulting and scaling, the sport is flexible enough to adapt to a low-impact version that can benefit seniors in all kinds of ways, Evitt said. “The basic rolling and falling techniques are helpful for aging adults. We also cover a lot of movements like getting over obstacles or climbing on top of an item. Those skills could translate to balancing on a stool to water a plant, stepping over a traffic barrier, or navigating Boston’s snowy streets in the wintertime. Low-impact parkour can help you do all of these things with more confidence.”
Besides, said Diane Krause of Arlington, 67, it’s fun. She started taking the classes a few years ago after reading a description in her local community education bulletin. “One of the challenges was to go up an outdoor staircase without touching the ground, so we did it by climbing the railings,” she said. “A few weeks ago we warmed up for class by playing tag. I’m thinking, when was the last time I played tag? It makes me feel like a kid.”
But Krause also recognizes the practical benefits of low-impact parkour. She described a challenge that involved walking across a board that had been mounted on cylindrical PVC pipes. “It gives you a certain confidence, which leads to better balance.”
“No one should confuse senior parkour with the high-intensity version,” said Dr. Asif Merchant, chief of geriatrics at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. “But the low-impact kind is a fun way for seniors to build their balance and strength. It also seems to give people a sense of well-being, and it’s a social activity. So it has the potential to benefit seniors physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
“Sometimes a whole class is spent on learning to fall down and roll properly,” said Resa Blatman, 63,of Somerville. “When you’re a little kid, you fall all the time and get back up. As we get older, we think of falling as something scary and dangerous. But it’s not, if you become accustomed to it and learn how to do it safely. Then if you do slip on ice or trip on the sidewalk, you have extra confidence and are more likely to avoid getting hurt.”
Brandon Wilson, 70, of Somerville had a different concern when her son, a parkour coach, first described the sport to her. As a city planner, she worried that parkour in public parks would damage landscaping or infrastructure. But her son explained that every challenge takes into account the surroundings and puts a premium on leaving them untouched.
“Not leaving a trace behind is part of their modus operandi,” Wilson said. “In fact, you get penalty points if you step on the landscaping or damage anything.” So she tried it, and soon became an enthusiast. “It’s about doing things you did as a kid, like balancing on the curb or walking along the sidewalk without stepping on a crack. It’s fun and playful.”
“Parkour has made me better at the other sports I do, including yoga, folk dancing, cross-country skiing, skating, and hiking,” said Jane Whitmore, 65, of Arlington.
Many seniors also note the sense of inclusivity that pervades their parkour classes. “We have a great time and we always support each other,” said Robert Smyth, 72, of Somerville. “When someone accomplishes a move they’ve been working on, we all congratulate them. I’ve made new friends, and it has helped me stay active.”
Classes frequently take place outdoors, which carries added appeal to many participants as they gradually emerge from pandemic seclusion.
“At its core, parkour is about empowerment and creating a dialogue between us and our environment, whether urban or otherwise,” said Evitt. “There’s no reason for that to be restricted to certain age groups. We all traverse these spaces, we all pay for these spaces, and we all have a right to use them.
“We can do this while also improving spatial awareness, balance, and muscle strength. It’s a creative way to have fun with movement.”
Vanessa Mulvey of Reading, 55, first tried parkour at a public park in Houston and enjoyed it so much that she underwent training to become a coach. Now she frequently leads senior low-impact classes. “Everyone is equal in parkour class,” she said. “The person doing the hardest movement helps the weakest person. There’s no judgment. We like to say ‘We all start together and we all finish together.’ It’s a mind/body/spirit practice that can bring you back to being a kid, make you laugh at yourself, and lead you into a community of support. In all of those ways, it beats bicep curls.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at NancySWest@gmail.com.