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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Program offers exercise classes aimed at helping to reduce falls among seniors

Florence Michaud, 79, keeps her balance with a chair as she works out during a SAIL (“Stay Active & Independent for Life”) class last week at Touchmark on Spokane’s South Hill. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Florence Michaud, 79, keeps her balance with a chair as she works out during a SAIL (“Stay Active & Independent for Life”) class last week at Touchmark on Spokane’s South Hill. (Tyler Tjomsland)

I t was 9 a.m., and change was coming, Lori McCormick warned her students as they sat on cushioned chairs arranged in an oval in a brightly lit studio. There would be a new soundtrack for their workout, new tunes to offer a beat.

“Play some waltzes!” called a white-haired, white-mustachioed student in jeans and sturdy sneakers.

Sorry, McCormick told him. They’d be moving faster than a waltz.

A couple of stragglers joined the group – one leaving a walker at the door – and McCormick, the health and fitness director at Touchmark retirement community on South Waterford Drive launched into the morning’s hourlong routine.

The class included a series of exercises found by the state Department of Health to reduce falls among people 65 and older. Starting in early October, Touchmark has been offering Stay Active & Independent for Life, or SAIL, classes to its residents and the public with the goal of reducing life-altering – or even life-ending – falls among seniors.

The SAIL program was developed as a result of a DOH fall-prevention study conducted in Spokane and Pierce counties starting in 2003. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study aimed to identify specific ways to prevent falls among seniors, that demographic’s leading cause of injury-related hospitalization in the state.

“Beyond the age of 65, about 1 in 3 adults fall every year,” said McCormick, a physical therapist (and a former sidekick to host Mary Ann Wilson on “Sit and Be Fit” on PBS). “And, of course, the injuries resulting from those falls can be life-threatening, when it’s especially head injuries and hip fractures. So if we can reduce the number of falls that people have, then we would be able to quite significantly improve quality of life.”

The classes also are offered by the Institute for Extended Learning through Community Colleges of Spokane and have been offered by a couple of other retirement communities in Spokane, although not necessarily to the public.

What sets SAIL apart as a fall-prevention program is the quality of randomized-control research behind it, McCormick said.

In funding the state study, the CDC was looking to identify methods proven to prevent seniors from falling.

“There’s lots of programs for older adults that will help them to increase their balance or their strength or their flexibility – Zumba Gold, aquatics for seniors – but they’re not a fall-prevention program,” said Mary Borges, who manages the state Health Department’s senior-fall prevention program.

The study involved 453 Spokane and Pierce county residents 65 and older. Some got some intervention, including group exercise three times a week and six hours of fall-prevention education. The others were given only written materials on how to prevent falls. After 12 months, those who got the multifaceted intervention suffered 25 percent fewer falls.

The community-based approach improved balance, mobility and leg strength, all known risk factors for falls, the study’s authors concluded.

After the study was published, however, the state agency lost fall-prevention funding, and the SAIL program lost steam, Borges said.

But starting in 2012, fall-prevention efforts gained new funding and new energy, she said, and the state agency and local health districts are working to train instructors and teach the program to more people.

Besides exercise, the program addresses other factors that contribute to fall risk for seniors, including poor vision, effects of medication, proper footwear and safe homes.

But fitness was the emphasis at the Touchmark class.

McCormick said each SAIL class includes an assessment of participants’ lower-body and upper-body strength and how fast and well they can rise from a chair, circle a nearby cone and sit back down, a test that measures their ability to balance and turn as well as some cognitive abilities. To measure lower-body strength, for example, participants are asked to perform as many “sit-to-stands” as they can in 30 seconds, rising from a chair and sitting down again.

The six weekly SAIL classes at Touchmark classes build up to 18 minutes of aerobics followed by balance exercises, many of which mimic everyday activities.

“Some of the functional activities that we do put people more at risk,” McCormick said. “Like we know sometimes people are reaching for something and they fall. And we know that people fall when they’re turning.”

The 14 students in Wednesday’s 9 a.m. session took big steps over imaginary logs and, sideways, into imaginary bathtubs; turning their heads while they’re walking, as if to look for traffic; walking “narrow,” as if on a balance beam; standing while reaching forward, as if into the trunk of a car; standing with their feet close together and leaning forward and back and from side to side.

Class participant Janet Burke, 84, said she suffered a fall recently.

Active all her life, she thought she was steady on her feet. She didn’t go down hard, and she was fine, she said. But among her first thoughts was, Please, bones, be OK.

“We think we’re being so careful, and then, oops,” Burke said.

Like Burke, Touchmark resident Martha Lu Butler, 97, attended regular fitness classes long before they became SAIL classes, with exercises designed specifically to reduce falls. But she appreciates the new emphasis.

“You can trip here,” Butler said, even on the fitness studio’s smooth wooden floor. “You turn too quickly, and you’re down before you know it. That’s something that older citizens need to be aware of. We’re used to being quick and agile all our lives.”

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