Fear falling? Congregants improve their balance

The fall-prevention class at Congregation Beth Emeth is partly based on the martial art Tai Chi. Photo by Justin Katz
The fall-prevention class at Congregation Beth Emeth is partly based on the martial art Tai Chi.
Photo by Justin Katz

Woody McMahon joked around with Congregation Beth Emeth members as they each took a seat inside a large multipurpose room. McMahon, a personal trainer, knows everyone by name, which helps to create a relaxed atmosphere.

The eight members of the Herndon synagogue, ages 65 through 80, are here to explore an issue that McMahon said is both inevitable and overlooked.

“Eventually you’re going to get into a situation where the quality of your balance is going to deteriorate,” said McMahon.“Unless you think about it, and target your exercise program so that it includes balance exercises, then it’s not going to work out so well.”

McMahon, who operates three Sequoia Health and Fitness sites in Virginia and who has taught posture classes at Beth Emeth for several years, suggested a fall-prevention class for older adults to help strengthen their balance.


Rabbi Steve Glazer, who led Beth Emeth for 18 years before retiring in 2013, established an eldercare assistance fund with his wife, Andrea, for Beth Emeth three years ago. While he initially thought of the fund as a source for more traditional assistance, such as subsidies and medication, he was enthusiastic about funding the fall-prevention class.

“We see the fund as being applied very broadly, and this was a creative use of the fund. It’s not something we had in mind,” said Glazer, who participated in McMahon’s posture classes.

One out of three adults age 65 or older falls each year, and more than 2 million are treated in emergency departments annually for fall injuries, according to the Center for Disease Control’s STEADI initiative, which aims to stop elderly accidents, deaths and injuries. McMahon adopted aspects of the CDC’s program, such as benchmark tests to determine if an individual’s balance has improved.

The program also draws on research done by Fuzhong Li, a senior scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, who developed a training regimen designed for older adults and people with balance disorders.

McMahon said that the movements used in his class are based largely on the Chinese marital art Tai Chi. But where Tai Chi uses slow, rhythmic movements, balance exercises occasionally use quick movement that upsets a person’s balance.

The program, he said, is as much about an individual’s confidence as it is about their physical ability.

“Studies have shown that if you fear falling, you’re going to fall more,” said McMahon.

Ronald Klayton, 72, is a retired pulmonologist and longtime member of Beth Emeth. As a physician, he’s seen patients who have broken bones from falling. But being aware of the danger has not made him immune. He’s fallen while hiking on unstable soil and said he enrolled in McMahon’s class to improve his balance and confidence.

“It’s always in the back of my mind. I’m afraid to go on hikes that are too challenging [because of having to] scramble over rocks or cross creeks on stones,” said Klayton.

His performance on the benchmark test at the start of the class in April was average. But he’s got another evaluation coming up when classes draw to a close at the end of July.

“When we finish [the class], we repeat the test, and I’ll be anxious to see if there was improvement.”

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