Last winter, I was navigating a slippery sidewalk near my house and stepped on a patch of black ice that my eyes mistook for a patch of black stone. Big mistake. In a millisecond I was falling, hurtling toward the ground. Before my mind could react, however, my body did. It rotated slightly, seemingly of its own accord, and turned what could have possibly been an injury-producing fall into a Judo roll. Yes, at the end of it I was sprawled on the hard, icy ground, feeling slightly silly, but I was unharmed. I stood up and walked home, none the worse for my experience.
I attribute this “body knowledge” to having studied Judo for a number of years in my youth. You’ve seen Judo – in the Olympics, if not in martial arts movies. It involves people throwing other people around, seemingly with the greatest of ease. But before you learn how to throw someone in Judo, first you have to learn how to fall. There is a science to this, learning ways to override your body’s innate fear of falling and instincts that could cause you injury, such as reaching out with your arms to stop the fall. While this may seem instinctively or intuitively correct, it is actually one of the worst things you could do, and often results in sprained or broken wrists and arms, as they absorb the full weight of your body as it’s falling.
In Judo, you learn the art of turning the momentum of your fall into a graceful rolling motion, thus reducing the impact of the fall on your body. I must have practiced falling thousands of times in my youth, but if asked today to describe “how to fall,” I would probably be unable to put it into words. My mind can’t remember. But my body did – over thirty years after last having studied Judo – well enough to allow me to walk away from my encounter with an icy sidewalk with no injuries.
Falls are dangerous, and far more common than we’d like to think
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that every year one in three adults over the age of 65 suffers a fall. Among people that age, falls are the #1 cause of injury-related death, and the #1 cause of non-fatal injuries. In 2010, the medical cost of falls was 30 billion dollars.
People fall. E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., writing about falls in Psychology Today, points out some of the reasons for the prevalence of these injuries. A fall is a type of trauma, and creates both immediate and lasting effects. In the moment, the body tenses up, anticipating the fall, which tends to increase the potential for injury. Afterwards it is very common to develop a fear of falling again, which again can have a deleterious effect, as people start to avoid walking around and being active, and as a result lose their muscle strength and weaken their sense of balance, and thus become more likely to fall again, not less.
How can studying Judo help?
Judo, invented by Jigoro Kano in 1882, was described by him as “the way of gentleness.” It is a science based on the use of maximum efficiency combined with minimum effort. Learning to fall safely and without injury is the necessary precedent to learning how to perform a Judo throw on someone. In Judo, you practice falling far more than you practice throwing, so after a while your body learns to fall correctly and safely and retains a “body memory” of it. That is what saved me from injury last winter – my body still remembering this over 30 years later.
But learning Judo is not limited to the young. Studies have been performed in which the Judo art of falling safely have been taught to the elderly as well. In one 2010 study, adults between the ages of 60 and 81 years old were given five 45-minute training sessions in Judo falling techniques. Even after this short training, all participants mastered the falling techniques and significantly reduced the impact of falling on their hips, a common location of fall-related fractures in the elderly.
Similar results were found in a study performed at the St. Maartenskliniek in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In that study, researchers demonstrated that modified Judo falling techniques were safe for elderly people with osteoporosis. They found that people with osteoporosis could quickly learn safe falling strategies, and thus reduce their risk of future fractures.
So it’s not just me passing along this tip about Judo. There is a substantial body of research that indicates that learning a few simple falling techniques could greatly reduce your risk of injury from falls. If you are interested, Judo is taught in almost every YMCA in America. In addition, many Senior Citizens’ organizations provided modified Judo techniques specifically designed for the elderly, and in a shortened course format, focusing only on the falling techniques, not the throwing techniques. In other words, you don’t have to study Judo for a lifetime to learn its secrets for how to save your life.