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Getting fit with Parkour (and other outdoor adventures)

By Lisa Ziegel

As a kid, I was lucky enough to be able to run around freely outdoors in my neighborhood where I took full advantage of the many open spaces that surrounded my house to play and be active. Climbing up trees and over fences and walls, as well as leaping over objects was part of a typical adventure, along with climbing the "monkey bars" and playing on the swing set in the park and rolling, tumbling, doing cartwheels, etc. This feeling of being able to move the body through these activities was not only exhilarating but a good way to stay physically fit, but unfortunately, I outgrew this and became a much more sedentary teen-ager.

Until recently the only way adults could recapture this feeling of heart-pounding thrills (and sometimes spills) was vicariously through action movies, most notably in James Bond films, where elaborate extended chase scenes incorporated a lot of jumping over obstacles, like cars and fences, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, dodging cars, animals, bad guys and more. This was not lost on a man named Sébastien Foucan who was an actor/stuntman in the 2006 James Bond film, "Casino Royale," playing a villain running from Bond in the most graceful, athletic and thrilling manner arguably ever captured on film. Parisian-born Foucan is one of the founders of movements that are steadily gaining in popularity called "Parkour" and "Freerunning" and many other offshoots. David Belle is another native of France responsible for the name, taking it from a word his father used to describe his military training, which involved moving through obstacles with a highly evolved physical prowess. Bell adopted the term "Parcours du Combatant" and changed it to suit his own ideals of incorporating free-flowing gymnastics and using local urban surroundings as a vast and limitless "gym."

Although very similar, Parkour and Freerunning are based on different principles. Parkour is more focused on getting from one object to another with as much speed and efficiency as possible, and Freerunning emphasizes personal creativity and centering in one's own self, Foucan's motto being "follow your own way." However, if you watch one of the many videos widely available, there isn't much apparent difference. The aim is to get from point "A" to point "B" by jumping, tumbling, climbing or running as fluidly as possible, so that it looks like a choreographed "flow," but it is all really impromptu and unplanned. Although there are few rules and competition is discouraged, there are certain methods that are practiced, such as going from "A" to "B" one way, then going back from "B" to "A" in a different way, e.g. jumping from a stair rail to a wall, and then from the wall back to the stair rail using a different technique. Precision, timing and coordination are all essential, as well as the very basic "rolling" fall that each "traceur"or "traceuse" (male and female practitioners, respectively) must master to avoid injury when hitting the ground at high speed and velocity.

Needless to say, all of this is a great way to stay fit, but to do this in the first place, a pretty advanced level of baseline fitness and skill is necessary. This is why there are classes and courses to teach the basic physical attributes and principles of the "art" (it is considered more this than a sport). The baseline fitness level needed before embarking on your adventure is to build your cardiovascular fitness, mainly through running. Adding calisthenics would be advisable (jumping jacks, mountain climbers, burpees) as well as jumping rope. Resistance training should focus on upper body strength (pull-ups, push-ups, grip strength) and lower body endurance (squats, lunges, calf raises). Adding gymnastic movements would be the next step with basic tumbling and rolling, jumps and flips along with rope climbing, uneven bars, and more. Balance and agility training (perhaps some ballet/dance instruction) is also essential. Last, you would put all of these together and incorporate them in a large obstacle-course-like setting in the safety of a gym where you can land on a cushy pad instead of unforgiving concrete. Classes can be found in most cities, where local recreation centers offer them in response to concerns about safety for teens and youth who are likely to try "tricks" without any formal training, and of course run the risk of hurting themselves and damaging civic property.

In addition to the physical training, philosophy is also taught to encourage a respect for others in the environments in which they practice these arts and to focus on safety (as there are obviously many dangers inherent in Parkour and Freerunning). Although more parks and courses are being made available, many Traceurs prefer parks, playgrounds, abandoned building complexes and sparsely-traveled urban areas as this goes with the idea of being free to move within any given environment. Those who practice this way are bound by principle to leave the area as they found it and to leave quietly when asked to. The main principle that founding father David Belle wants to relay is that Parkour should be an expression of the individual and challenge his or her own problem-solving skills through the physical aspects of overcoming obstacles in an urban environment, which then transfers to solving mental obstacles.

Elements of Parkour are creeping into mainstream popular culture, with "urban" obstacles being incorporated into mud runs and 5K runs, and its influence can be seen on prime-time network television in shows like "American Ninja." Perhaps this is going against the original idea of the art/sport, (which eschews competition), but the exposure may lead to more people practicing it as a means of getting fit or even getting in extraordinary shape. It certainly lends a greater appeal to a huge at-risk population, kids and teen-agers, who, if the trend in early-age sedentary lifestyle and obesity continues as it has, will contribute to the already out-of-control adult obesity/diabetes/heart disease epidemic.

Whether you can perform fantastic feats, such as jumping from the roof of a building onto a stair rail, or you just tumble down the field in a local park and hang from the monkey bars with confidence and agility, Parkour can bring you the feeling of freedom and joy of just moving your body without being confined within four walls, and the fitness and mental benefits will only add to the adventure.