(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
Snowstorms, freezing rains and ice are all a reality this time of year in many parts of the country. And unless you’re planning on holing up in your house until spring thaw or live in a no-snow zone, it’s a good bet that one day, you’ll step outside and be confronted with slipping, sliding…or worse.
Falls are no laughing matter for you or your parents.
Fear of falling can be more debilitating than the injury itself.
— physical therapist Meredith Hinds-Harris
Twenty to 30 percent of them in adults over 65 cause moderate to severe injuries, lack of independence or even death. In 2011, over 22,000 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And nearly 50 percent of falls among older people happen — you guessed it — outside, according to a published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Remember diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins? His unfortunate death, at 72, occurred not as a result of eating the wrong foods, but from a head injury due to a fall on an icy sidewalk outside his New York City office.
Many falls can be avoided, however. Stay safe outside this winter with these nine expert tips:
1. Get Physical
The stronger and fitter you are, the less likely you are to fall, says physical therapist Meredith Hinds-Harris, a professor emeritus at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass. “The less you move, the weaker you get,” she explains. Exercising can help prevent falls because it makes your muscles stronger and more flexible and helps to improve your balance.
Hinds-Harris suggests incorporating this simple “one leg stand” into your everyday routine at home: While brushing your teeth, stand on one foot, hold five to six seconds, then switch to the other. For complete instructions, check out this link from the American Council on Exercise.
2. Watch Where You Step
It may sound obvious to look at where you’re going before you start moving, but we all can easily get distracted. Always assume that all wet and dark areas on pavements are slippery and icy (dangerous, slippery ice could be lurking underneath that blanket of light and fluffy snow.) Just because you don’t see ice doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Test out potentially slick areas by tapping your foot on them first. If you must walk up or down a hill, consider walking along its grassy edge for better traction. Hinds-Harris also suggests looking in advance for something to grab onto in case you do start to fall.
3. Wear Socks Over Your Shoes
Go ahead and start a new winter fashion trend, all in the name of safety. Socks are not only good for keeping your piggies warm under your shoes or boots, a study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal found that wearing socks over shoes was an effective and inexpensive way to increase traction on icy footpaths and reduce your likelihood of slipping. When observing people wearing socks over shoes vs. people wearing only shoes, the researchers found that those with their socks on the outside not only slipped less, but walked with more confidence than the people wearing just shoes.
4. Do the Shuffle
Now is not the time to maintain your regular, graceful gait. Instead, pretend you’re a penguin. Take short, flat-footed baby steps, pointing your feet out slightly, while spreading your body weight as evenly as possible over the entire surface of your feet. (Curling your toes under can help you stay more flat-footed.) Walking sideways also increases your base of support, says Hinds-Harris.
In either case, “make sure you knees are bent, and you also bend a little at the hip,” she notes. And build in extra time to get to your destination: stopping occasionally can help break the momentum that walking builds up.
5. Keep Your Hands Out of Your Pockets
Keeping your hands in your pockets might increase their warmth, but it decreases your center of gravity and balance. Better to extend your arms out to your sides — and wear gloves so you can break your fall if you do slip.
If you must carry something in your hands, try to keep it light. “If your hands are too full, you can also become distracted if you slip,” says Hinds-Harris, who also likes Nordic poles for walking outside. “In Denmark, elderly people use these, as opposed to canes, because it makes them look more athletic and vigorous, while giving them stability,” she notes.
6. Stay Out of the Street
The street is usually the first area to be cleared, so it may be tempting to walk there. But remember, trucks and cars slide, too, and you may put yourself in the path of an oncoming vehicle that is unintentionally heading right toward you. Instead, walk in designated walkways as much as possible, trying to avoid walking directly in the middle of the pathway, unless there’s grit.
If you must walk in the street, walk on the right side of the road, toward oncoming traffic, staying as close to the curb as possible. Wearing bright or reflective clothing will help drivers see you better, too. Be careful about hoods and scarves, which can block your vision and make it hard for you to hear traffic. Likewise, be aware of snow drifts, which can muffle the sound of approaching cars.
7. Choose Your Shoes Wisely
Sneakers are comfortable, but they don’t mix with snow. So swap out your sneaks for footwear that provides traction, like boots made of non-slip rubber or neoprene. Grooved soles can improve traction between the walking surface and the sole, while flat leather or plastic-soled shoes give your minimal resistance.
Or consider crampons, which is what professional ice and glacier climbers use for stability. These slip on over your existing shoes; the spikes on their metal plates help give you better traction. Crampons are becoming more mainstream and lightweight. For everyday winter walking, aluminum or steel work best.
8. Carry Kitty Litter
Bring a little bag of kitty litter along with you on your walk. Sprinkling it on the ground can add traction to slippery surfaces.
9. Curb Your Fear
It’s common to be afraid of falling again once you’ve fallen, even if that experience didn’t cause an injury. That fear might also cause you to stay at home away from all the things you like to do. But muscles and bones can weaken over time if you don’t use them, and then you could become more, not less, likely to suffer a fall. “Fear of falling can be more debilitating than the injury itself,” says Hinds-Harris.
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