Walking tips for safer strolls this winter

There *is* a better way to fall — but also a way to hopefully not fall at all.

There *is* a better way to fall — but also a way to hopefully not fall at all

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

You're all bundled up in your favourite knits ready to get outside and face the cold winter air. Toque? Check. Scarf and mitts? Check and check. But you don't make it five steps from the front door when wham! You're on the ground thanks to a patch of ice.

Everyday activities can be riskier in the winter — just going outside for a quick stroll and some fresh air has the potential for accidents and falls can happen when doing simple tasks close to home, like going to get the mail or walking to the car. 

Dr. Angela M. Cheung, Founding Director of the University Health Network Osteoporosis Program and the Centre of Excellence in Skeletal Health Assessment (CESHA), says that the impact of a fall can really vary depending on a person's age. Generally, people tend to fall forward and brace themselves by sticking their hands out. As people age, however, kyphosis may develop in which the spine rounds forward and the centre of gravity shifts, so when they fall, it's typically sideways or backward. That's why it's more common to see hip fractures in older adults; the average age being 75 years old, says Cheung.

Slips and trips can happen to anyone at any age, and so while there's no way to predict a fall, there are ways in which to fall better. 

"Once you start to fall, try to relax as much as you can. Don't brace up as that will increase your risk for injuries," recommends Urban Poling co-founder Mandy Shintani, who has worked as an occupational therapist and gerontologist for over 25 years. "Once you have fallen, don't rush to get up — stay there and let your body recover," she advises.

In the interest of not falling at all, here are some expert tips to consider.

Eliminate distractions and walk intentionally

Accidents can happen when distractions occur and we're not paying attention to our footing or the condition of the street. "Your phone's ringing... [and] if you're not walking intentionally maybe you're going to answer" instead of focusing on walking safely, says Shintani.

A common issue Cheung sees is tripping over one's own toe, particularly with older adults. "[Older] people don't lift their toe off the ground as much" and so they trip over their toe by not lifting their leg high enough, says Cheung. It's best to mindfully walk one step at a time to reduce the chance of stumbling.

Train your balance and reflexes

Shintani recommends doing exercises that are about balance and reaction as well as muscle strengthening — and not to forget key exercises that focus on the hip and knee, adductors and abductors, as well as the ankles. "We forget to exercise our ankles and they're really critical in terms of preventing falls," she says. 

A few exercises she suggests include stepping up on your toes, doing ankle circles, squats, and lunges.

It's also about doing exercises that help improve reaction time, says Shintani. This might mean stepping out to the side really quickly and in all different directions. "Oftentimes, it's [in] that side-stepping that we have falls… you want to be able to use your feet to react quickly," she says.

Cheung also recommends focusing on balance training and practicing sideways movements. One exercise she suggests is to practice walking sideways, crossing one foot over the other in one direction then the other direction, then repeat by crossing one foot behind the other. "[You] want to make sure you can, and know how to, correct [in the event of a stumble]," Cheung says.

A simple balance exercise she suggests trying is to hold on to something unmovable like a kitchen sink and practice standing on one foot then the other.

Wear good winter shoes and use walking aids if needed

Not all footwear is created equal, and wearing boots with good grip can help with fall prevention. In general, the deeper the tread and the more abrasion on the surface, the better, says Cheung who recommends consulting the website ratemytreads.com, which tests and rates footwear. When conditions are icy, Cheung advises her patients to wear rubber ice and snow grips for added traction and it may even be necessary to rely on walking aids. For patients who have mobility issues and may already be using walkers or canes, she advises to have someone walk next to them, and that one cane may not be enough. "You need a cane with spikes... it flips up and down for winter, [and] I often get patients to use two canes in the winter rather than one," says Cheung.

Shintani recommends using nordic walking poles, particularly for people who may have balance issues. "[Nordic walking poles] offload 11 to 34 per cent [of pressure], so if you do have hip and knee pain, you are able to walk further." Research shows that nordic walking training can improve balance and functional mobility as well as provide other benefits, including increased shoulder function in the elderly

For people who are more susceptible to falls, it may be worth looking into wearing hip protectors, too. In some cases, they may be covered by health insurance, and Cheung says the hardshell protectors are better than the soft padding variety. "That shell has to fit over your hips on the side so that when you actually do [fall sideways], it can take some of the impact and not break your hip."

Lastly, be mindful of lighting conditions. "I live in North Vancouver, we don't have street lights… I do walk with a brightly lit jacket or I use a nightlight," says Shintani. So if you're planning to walk at dusk or dawn or in conditions with more limited visibility, ensure you're able to see the road more clearly by perhaps bringing along a headlight — or better yet, wait for a more opportune time to get outside and play it safe.

Janet Ho is a writer and hobby artist. You can follow her at @janetonpaper.

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