By Janice Tober

Everyone gets that we need to stay healthy and exercise, but joining a gym and taking up most sports costs cash, sometimes a lot of cash. And getting in 10,000 steps a day? Boring. This is where parkour, literally, leaps onto the scene.

With its focus on climbing, jumping and rolling over obstacles, parkour seems to be a sport made for the urban landscape, although that is not how it started.

Evolution of Parkour

Many people believe that parkour started in the late 80s with a man named Raymond Belle. While Belle, a fireman and former member of the French Special Forces, helped create the modern form of parkour—along with his sons and their friends—its origins are actually much earlier than that.

According to the World Freerunning Parkour Federation (WFPF), in 1902, the Caribbean island of Martinique was hit by a devastating volcanic eruption that wiped out the town of Saint-Pierre, killing almost 30,000 people.

Georges Hébert, a young French naval officer, lived through it and coordinated the evacuation of over 700 Indigenous and European peoples. As the survivors began to move out of the area, he noticed that the Indigenous Peoples were seemingly able to do so much more easily than the Europeans, gracefully and creatively making their way over obstacles, while the Europeans seemed to be looking for familiar pathways which were gone. In Hébert’s view, “modern man” had lost the ability to move effectively and efficiently except in routine, easy surroundings. And, because of the bravery and loss he saw that day, he believed that to be of any real value, athletic skill and courage must be paired together and lived. Hébert’s life-changing epiphany gave rise to the original motto of parkour: “être fort pour être utile,” or “Be strong to be useful.”

Hébert began to travel throughout Africa and elsewhere, noting the physical agility of the Indigenous Peoples he saw. Based on his observations, he developed a physical training system he called The Natural Method. It consisted of climbing, swimming, running and completing man-made obstacle courses built to simulate the natural outdoor environment.

The Natural Method soon became the training method of choice for all French military forces. With a little bit of refinement by the Special Forces, it became known as “parcours du combattant,” or “the path of the warrior.”

This is where we come back to Raymond Belle. He took his military training and taught his sons what he had learned. This became the modern evolution of parkour.

Getting Started

Today, most parkour practitioners do a bit of parkour, all physicality and efficiency, and a bit of freerunning—a more creative style that incorporates breakdancing and martial arts moves. Serious aficionados of the sport know, though, that the practice is not just physical. To be really good at parkour you need to be mentally agile too. The sport tests your problem-solving and creative capabilities as well as your ability to be steadfastly calm.

The WFPF and the International Parkour Federation both offer certifications, training and competitions for seriously experienced athletes, and are also good places to get information. Less formal groups exist throughout Canada as well. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, for instance, there’s a Facebook group with over 800 members. Experienced and newbie parkour athletes get together at different spots to practice the sport together, at no charge, and offer encouragement and tips to each other. If you want to go solo, though, all you need is an obstacle course or just a few park benches. You’ll develop a strong body, strong mind, and you definitely won’t be bored.