Don’t you love the sound of the frozen leaves crunching underneath your feet? That beautiful sheen of white across a grassy field. The winter is a time of peace and rest, but we all know we still need to stay physically active. Yet, as the outdoor conditions change with the season, various factors come into play that can affect our balance and our ability to prevent a fall.
The days grow shorter. Lower light means a higher risk for falls. The weather grows colder. Ice and snow mean a higher risk for falls.
While these factors apply to everyone, older adults are at a higher risk for falls than younger adults and are more likely to have serious injuries. Something that may be a sprain or strain in a younger adult could be much more serious in an older adult. Sometimes this means a bone fracture in the extremities or spine, which can become very serious very quickly. Additionally, falls can lead to traumatic brain injuries and disability.
Falls are common in those 65 years old or greater with about 33% having at least one fall per year. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 1.5 million older adults go to the emergency room each year due to fall-related injuries. But, while falls, and resulting injuries, are common, they are not inevitable. There are steps we can all take to prevent falls, even in the winter.
Top 3 Tips for Preventing Falls
There are three main components that we use for balance: eyesight, feeling in our feet (somatosensory), and inner ear (equilibrium). Knowing this, there are some simple things you can do to keep yourself from falling.
Get routine, annual eye exams to ensure your eyewear prescription is current and correct. If you’re wearing the wrong Rx, you increase your chance of falling dramatically. Also, talk to your optometrist about moving away from progressive lenses or bi/trifocals if you currently wear then and have a balance issue. Instead, use specific glasses for going about town and another set for when you’re reading a book or checking your text messages.
Have your feet checked by your Podiatrist, Physical Therapist, or Doctor. Healthy feet are vital for mobility and balance. Sensory information in your feet is important so you can sense the ground underneath you and react appropriately. If you suffer from neuropathy (weakness, numbness, and pain from nerve damage, commonly caused by diabetes, but also sometimes resulting from injuries, infections, or exposure to toxins) regularly checking your feet for signs of injury or infection can prevent more serious problems.
To improve your sense of equilibrium you must work on your inner ear. This means balance exercises! Start with ankle sways — stand with your feet shoulder width apart and shift your weight side to side only moving at the ankles. The shoulders and hips should move together as one unit. Do this for 1 minute. Then, try shifting weight forward and backward. Only go forward toward your toes until your heels feel light, then shift backward to your heels (slowly!) until your toes feel light. Do this for 1 minute as well.
In addition to following these tips, you should exercise regularly to improve your strength, especially in your legs! Routine exercise, even strengthening alone, has been shown to have a significant impact on fall risk. You can stay fit, and impact muscle strength with simple, at-home moves to keep your legs strong.
3 Simple Strengthening Moves to Reduce Fall Risk
The Chair Rise exercise is a perfect place to start increasing leg strength to reduce your fall risk. From a seated position with your feet about shoulder width apart, reach your arms out and lean forward from your hips. As your bottom lifts off the chair, and without letting your knees collapse inward, move into a standing position. Reverse the movement back into the starting position. Aim for 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Next, while holding onto your countertop for support, try heel raises to stretch and strengthen foot and calf muscles, key to improving balance. Slowly raise up onto your toes, then lower. Start with 10 repetitions, rest, then do 10 more! When you’re ready for a challenge, try one leg at a time.
To round out your strengthening routine, try sidestepping. Stand with a countertop or railing in front of you. Take a step out to the side while staying upright and without leaning your trunk, then bring the trailing leg to shoulder width stance and repeat! Do 20 steps with the right leg leading, and 20 with the left leg leading.
As the peace and beauty of the winter settles upon us, make a commitment to you safety by following the above tips and incorporating these balance exercises into your daily routine. If you’re unsure about your fall risk, a physical therapist can perform a balance assessment to determine your level of functional balance and pinpoint any areas of concern. Using an expert assessment, your PT will create a customized plan for you to ensure you enjoy the season without experiencing a fall or any associated injuries. Schedule your appointment today!
Start your journey to pain-free living today.
Physical therapists can help with reducing your risk of falling during winter, and will work with you to develop an intervention program that includes stretching and exercises. Our experts are committed to providing effective, efficient, and compassionate care to help you live a pain-free, active life.