Judo for older adults: Learning to fall (safely)

The Bottom Line

  • Aging leads to decreased muscle strength, balance, flexibility and bone mass (osteoporosis), which increases the risk of falls and fall-related injuries.
  • Exercise reduces this risk, as well as improving quality of life, overall health and functional autonomy.
  • More specifically, judo is a complete activity that improves strength, mobility, flexibility, balance and bone density. By preventing falls and learning how to fall well, judo helps reduce the risk of serious fall-related injuries.

Did you know that almost a third of Canadians aged 60 and over are at risk of at least one fall this year? Unfortunately, these falls can have serious consequences and cause fractures, loss of independence and self-confidence. Falls are the leading cause of hospitalization for older adults in Canada. Additionally, those with osteoporosis are even more at risk: more than 80% of fractures in people age 50 and older are attributable to loss of bone density.(1)

Judo is a martial art created in Japan in 1882 by Jigorō Kanō as a physical, mental and moral pedagogy. The term judo in Japanese means the “gentle way”. Often associated with spectacular throws, judo offers several benefits for older adults, from preventing injuries when falling, to improving physical and mental health. Emphasis is placed not only on balance and strength, but also on techniques to learn how to fall safely and thus reduce the risk of injury. Indeed, judo is based on techniques to control falls called ukemis (or "receiving the body" in English).(2)

Ukemis in judo are based on four key principles:

- the head is the most important part to protect (so the head must not touch the ground)

- the lower you fall, the less you hurt yourself (so you have to bend down by bending your legs)

- rolling hurts less than falling (it is therefore necessary to round the body as much as possible)

- the more the ground vibrates when the body hits it, the less the body suffers (you should slap the ground a millisecond before your body hits the ground).(3)

Falls are always unpredictable and can leave serious consequences for older adults. Can the practice of judo, and more specifically learning ukemis, help prevent fall-related injuries among older adults?

What research tells us

A recent evidence synthesis identified 15 studies on the effects of judo on the health of adults aged 45-78.(1) Classes, lasted between 45 minutes and 60 minutes, 1 to 3 times a week, were spread over 5 weeks to 24 months, in judo clubs, healthcare facilities, nursing homes or workplaces.

Classes offered to middle-aged participants focused on throws, body rotation and balance training. Classes dedicated to  older participants, it is mainly techniques on the ground or standing, as well as kata (sequences of movements) taught. These classes also included the practice of lateral and backward falls, as well as mobility exercises.

All studies reported positive results:

• In older adults (≥60 years), judo improved physical performance, functional autonomy, balance, strength, gait performance, flexibility and learning fall techniques.

• In middle-aged adults (≥45 years), an increase in bone mineral density, particularly in women receiving medical treatment for osteoporosis, has been demonstrated.

• Quality of life and bone mineral density only seemed to improve in the medium or long term, that is to say after 9 or 12 months of practicing judo.

While judo classes can be offered in different settings, one study concluded that it was more effective to take these classes directly at a local judo club, given the presence of several instructors and protective mats.

Would you like to learn how to fall safely?

If your health allows it, do not hesitate to add a physical activity such as judo to your schedule, whether to improve your functional autonomy, maintain your skills or benefit from stimulating social interactions!

Do not hesitate to contact Judo Canada, Judo Québec, or any other provincial/territorial judo association to find out about programs dedicated to fall prevention and control programs for older adults.(4-5)

Integrating judo into your routine means enjoying an activity that nourishes both the body and the mind, thus promoting active and fulfilled aging. 

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Author Details


  1. Chan U, Ayliffe L, Visvanathan R, Headland M, Verma M, Jadczak AD. Judo-based exercise programs to improve health outcomes in middle-aged and older adults with no judo experience: A scoping review. Geriatrics and Gerontology International. 2023 Mar;23(3):163-178. doi: 10.1111/ggi.14553. Epub 2023 Feb 3. PMID: 36737880.
  2. International Judo Federation. History and Culture. 2007.
  3. Séguin B. Programme de prévention et de contrôle des chutes. Judo Québec.
  4. Watts R. Judo courses in Quebec are teaching older people how to fall safely. CBC News, 11 January 2023.
  5. Radio-Canada. Des cours de prévention des chutes aux aînés par des clubs de judo, 20 December 2022.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.