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With big-band music playing softly in the background, a group of seniors recently walked an obstacle course through two rows of stacked chairs, maneuvered around cones, climbed up onto a low plastic step and then stepped over foam blocks.

They're participants in FallProof, a weekly balance and mobility class offered at the Petaluma Senior Center. Many seniors have attended FallProof for months because the techniques they're learning help them build confidence and master physical strategies to avoid falling down.

<CW-26>When a senior is hospitalized because of an accidental injury, it's likely to be the result of a fall. But by developing strength and agility and regularly practicing balance, older adults can avoid serious falls and the cascade of problems — physical, emotional and financial — that can occur from a disabling injury.</CW>

<CW-38>Some programs, like the Matter of Balance 8-week series of classes, feature primarily discussions about fear of falling, risk factors for injury, and prevention strategies. There's limited physical exercise in those classes. In other programs, such as FallProof, participants spend the sessions doing strength and agility drills and practicing various movements, like walking across a room while carrying a tray.</CW>

John Johnson, who teaches the FallProof class at the Petaluma Senior Center, is a balance and mobility specialist certified by Cal State Fullerton's Center for Successful Aging. He also teaches Matter of Balance classes locally and is certified to train volunteer instructors for that program.

"There is so much good evidence over the last 40 years that if you can identify someone's particular fall risks then you can help prevent them," Johnson said.

And it's crucial to avoid falls, he says, because when someone over age 65 falls, especially if it leads to injury, they're two to three times more likely to have additional falls.

"The good thing is most falls don't lead to injuries," said Johnson, noting that serious injury results only about 20 percent of the time.

But Johnson says it's important to realize that "most falls can be prevented and that falling is not part of the normal aging process."

Falls can happen because of intrinsic (body-related) and extrinsic (environmental) factors, and the various programs offered locally for seniors address both reasons for falling.

Extrinsic risk factors include wearing poorly fitted shoes, like slippers or flip-flops, dim lighting at night, not having grab bars in the right locations and having throw rugs on the floor that don't stay in place. Intrinsic factors include impaired vision and muscle weakness.

<CW-26>Before participants can join Johnson's FallProof class, they must provide a doctor's written consent, and he does an individualized assessment with them to gauge their personal readiness and challenges.</CW>

David Moore of Petaluma has been attending the FallProof class in Petaluma for 1? years.

"It's a splendid class and certainly helps at home. I used to fall but haven't since I've taken the class," he said. "It helps with balance. I didn't know I have so many muscles in my feet."

<CW-31>Another participant, Betty Rothenberger of Novato, was referred to the Petaluma Senior Center by a Kaiser Permanente physical therapist. She says the class has been helpful after having two hip replacements and one knee replacement.</CW>

"I'm all-around stronger," said Rothenberger, a retired teacher who appreciates Johnson's varied and well-planned lessons.

At 74, Lynnette Peters is one of the youngest FallProof participants. She had a major fall a few years ago and said, "The class is fabulous. John inspires confidence and calmness."

<CW-19>Omay Water-Schmeder, a senior physical therapist at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, offers a fall prevention class twice a month to KP members. She's also taught the Matter of Balance program for seniors in Sonoma County and trained volunteer instructors nationwide.</CW>

"The big issue for many older adults who fall and injure themselves is their quality of life goes downhill," she said.

Moving the body around is key to preventing falls because it stimulates the brain and sharpens coordination and memory.

"It makes the brain work more. A lot of people as they get older think they don't have to do anything anymore," Water-Schmeder said.

<CW-29>While organized classes like yoga or tai chi are fine, Water-Schmeder emphasizes that all adults should regularly practice three easy exercises, which can be done at home, to prevent falls. She recommends standing on one leg for one minute, standing for three minutes with one foot in front of the other, and sitting down and getting up 30 times from a chair. </CW>

Addressing the fear of falling is an important component in preventing falls, Water-Schmeder said.

<CW-35>"When you get afraid of falling, often you cut back on activity but ironically that increases your risk of falling," she said.</CW>

Janet Parmer is a Bay Area feature writer. She can be reached at jhparmer@comcast.net.