Gym champion gets kids moving any way they can


Off the sofa and up the wall: gymnast and TV host Nicolas Vanhole is using his expertise at parkour to encourage children in Flanders to get out and get fit

We like to move it

Gliding gracefully up walls and scampering over roofs, Nicolas Vanhole is demonstrating one of the coolest sports ever: parkour. You might know parkour as “freerunning”, a jumping, twisting and spinning pursuit that looks more like ballet than athletics and is now de rigueur for every Hollywood action movie and TV commercial.

But while Vanhole is mesmerising, he’s not showing off: He’s teaching. The idea is to impart to a generation of Flemish children the value – and fun – of regular exercise.

The 24-year-old is the face of Parkour, an initiative launched this month aimed at getting youngsters to do more sport. It’s being rolled out in 1,000 schools across Flanders and Brussels, with teachers and parents encouraged to support children in finding ways to do Vandore’s eight exercises. It’s just one of a number of programmes recently launched across Flanders to improve children’s health and fitness. 

Vanhole, who is already known as the host of Heroes on Flemish kids’ channel Ketnet, is a former gymnastics champion, and started doing parkour 10 years ago. “The idea is to use parkour to get children out, to get them moving,” he says. “These days, a lot of children spend their free time sitting in front of the television, playing computer games and on social media. They really need to exercise more, they need fresh air, they need to keep their bodies active.”

The scheme was devised by Octopusplan, which began as a campaign for the rights of pedestrians and cyclists and now helps schools and communities improve road safety and mobility. They describe parkour as “a safe and creative way to get from point A to point B over different obstacles in the open air”. 

Use your body

Others describe parkour as the art of moving from one point to another as efficiently as possible using only your body. In both a class setting and outdoors, this can involve running between, jumping, vaulting, leaping and climbing over various obstacles.

Vanhole designed eight simple exercises for pupils to learn, each of which is demonstrated in a video clip on the Octopusplan website. The project, which kicked off in Mechelen two weeks ago, sets different levels for different ages, starting at age six.

It includes a competition, so the schools can post images and clips on social media. Vanhole, who teaches sport at the We’re All Athletes centre in Leuven, also travels around to schools doing workshops. 

The goal is not to get them to do it perfectly, but to make them aware that they can move around, and do so safely

- Nicolas Vanhole

“Most kids can do most of the exercises,” he says. “The goal is not to get them to do it perfectly, but to make them aware that they can move around, and do so safely. And that they can do it with just a low wall and their own body.”

Parkour enthusiasts are often filmed trespassing on roofs and balancing precariously near sheer edges, but Vanhole insists the initiative is about safe exercise in the immediate environment. “We make clear that it is about public spaces or your own garden, but not other people’s houses and other buildings,” he says. “If you are responsible, there’s no problem.”

The main point, of course, is to find ways to get children moving: Parkour is novel, but it’s as simple as any exercise. It doesn’t take a sports scientist to see the huge physical benefits of regular movement training. As something that makes children run, jump, climb and explore their environment, parkour should make them stronger, faster, fitter and more agile. 

Problems later

It’s a message that’s echoed by the Flemish Institute for Health Promotion and Sickness Prevention (Vigez), which has launched a number of health and exercise projects. “We believe that children should move and play for at least one hour a day and should limit their screen time to two hours a day,” says spokesperson Liese Weemaels.

A Vigez brochure on our sedentary lifestyles shows that most children in Flanders sit for between six and nine-and-a-half hours a day. And while much of that time is at school, they also spend huge chunks of their day seated at home, in front of the TV, computer or phone. 

We need to create an environment that lets children play outside. If they play outside, they are more likely to be healthy

- Liese Weemaels

Vigez tries to counter the trend by going to schools and day-care centres, explaining how to develop a health policy. “If children don’t move enough, they face all sorts of problems,” says Weemaels. “When they are little, the signs are not always obvious, but it’s when they get older that we see the effects. We find that children who sit too much do worse at school. Their self-esteem is lower. They have muscle problems, and they are more at risk for cancer and diabetes.”

Recent figures reveal that 22% of children in Belgium – and the figure is 27% in Brussels – between the ages of five and nine are overweight. For children in urban environments it’s especially difficult to get enough exercise, says Weemaels.

While teachers and day-care workers can play a big role in making sure children keep mobile, society as a whole has a responsibility to act, she says. “Today, even if it’s sunny, it can be hard to go outside because of the traffic. In our car-oriented society, it can be difficult or even dangerous to go to the park. We need to create an environment that lets children play outside. If they play outside, they are more likely to be healthy.”

Exercise, she continues, “is partly your own responsibility, but partly the responsibility of our society – local communities and politicians”.

Healthy mind, healthy body

Vigez is involved in 10,000 Steps, a campaign aimed at encouraging adults to have a more active lifestyle, based on research that suggests we should be taking at least 10,000 steps a day to stay healthy.

The initiatives in Flanders also have political backing. Philippe Muyters, Flanders’ sports minister, highlights three reasons for encouraging children to exercise. “First, sport can keep you healthy,” he says. “In Roman times, they said Mens sana in corpore sano, or a healthy mind in a healthy body.”

Secondly, sport is a social activity. “It gets people together,” he says. “You can have a drink together afterwards. Sport is about social inclusion.”

And finally, it teaches children extra skills in their daily lives. Muyters, who used to coach his local football team, says sport can bring out leadership qualities. “As a coach, you can urge them on. And in turn, they learn to speak out, to come up with ideas.”

Muyters says he has seen how sport changes people. “As a coach, I always stressed that it was important to arrive on time,” he says. “It’s a basis of respect for the coach and the players. It’s just one example of how you can work with young people.”

The difficulty, he admits, is finding time for sport and exercise. “You have to start young, try different sports and keep at it,” he says, pointing out that he still gets up early every morning to do 45 minutes of cycling, or running up to 10 kilometres. “You have make time. I have been urging people to make sport a priority in their weekend.”

Everyone can train

For Vanhole, the Parkour initiative is about making it as easy and as fun as possible for children to exercise. “I think the main point is that it’s creative,” he says. “It’s a sense of both freedom and responsibility. It’s about reminding your body and mind that you can adapt. And the process of doing so is the best way to maintain your health and fitness.”

He says practice increases confidence, willpower and strength. Parkour, he adds, will also make children more aware of their environment and how they can learn to use it. “In the videos I’ve seen, people of every ability are trying to find their own way to move. Some people aren’t great at sport at first, but they learn that they can move.”

He thinks the initiative also helps children see the possibilities. “We found that they like to move, they like being outside in the sun, they like the freedom. Everyone can train. There are so many opportunities, but you have to see them. We just want to open people’s eyes.”

Photo courtesy Octopusplan