Winterize Yourself: 16 Ways to Avoid Injury and Illness During the Cold Months
Winter is a busy time of year in doctors’ offices. Slips and falls lead to knee and wrist sprains. Cold temperatures bring about hypothermia, and indoor conditions can incubate all kinds of germs.
“In the winter we have up to five times as many people in our emergency rooms,” Geoffrey Fernie, the director of research at Toronto Rehab, told the Canadian Press back in November.
Fernie is leading a study at the University of Toronto’s teaching hospital that investigates how humans fall in wintery conditions, and what measures can be taken to limit injuries. It sounds fairly slapstick — a bunch of researchers slipping and falling all over the place and measuring the results — but Fernie brings up an important point that underscores his team’s work:
“When people fall over, that can be the end of their lives, let alone the end of their independence. It’s a really big deal.”
And as circumstances in our lives change, winter can present obstacles that seem much more daunting than we remembered them:
- Maybe you’re recovering from an injury in the spring that’s left you walking more gingerly this winter.
- Maybe you are pregnant for the first time and are worried about how to adjust to walking on icy sidewalks.
- Maybe your work has relocated you from Miami to Minneapolis, and you are baffled by all this white stuff falling from the sky.
Whatever your situation, below are 16 steps you can take to winterize yourself and limit the possibility of an injury or the likelihood of catching someone else’s germs.
Don’t Be Afraid to Tuck and Roll if You Fall
This is usually the first lesson in a martial arts class, but everyone everywhere should know how to fall. Check out this video from GMB Fitness that will show you all of the motions and the physiology that go into breaking a fall safely. This could be the difference between an inconvenient hip bruise and a broken wrist that keeps you out of work for six weeks:
Grab Some Sturdy Snow Boots That Offer Solid Traction
Your first line of defense against an icy sidewalk is footwear, preferably a good boot with strong grip. Meg Muckenhoupt and Seamus Bellamy at The Wirecutter spent 30 hours testing out different boots last winter and ultimately gave top marks to a $120 pair of Columbia boots. If you are on the fence about whether you want to invest $100-plus in a pair of seasonal boots, take a look at that post for all the details of the trials the reviewers put their boots through.
Over-the-Shoe Cleats Are An Option, Too
Removable cleats might seem a bit extreme for personal use, but to folks in places like Buffalo or Chicago who walk to work, a $40 pair of cleats are a sound investment. And to employers who have employees walking around outside, a pair of cleats is cheap insurance against potential worker’s compensation claims.
That’s the position the staff at WinterWalking.com take. Winter Walking is a Pennsylvania company that sells cleats in bulk volumes to businesses whose people have to be outside during the winter. “If your employee slips and falls while on the job, all of those costs are yours to bear,” the company writes.
“So for the same reason that you would require that employee to wear gloves and goggles when operating a power saw at work, you should also require them to wear ice cleats, gritted footwear or other forms of Winter Walking traction gear.”
Check big retailers such as Amazon.com for price and quality comparisons if you’re thinking of buying winter cleats.
Get Some Indoor Shoes
The Scandinavians have been doing this for centuries: Have a pair of comfortable indoor shoes you can change into when you get to work. Not only does this keep you looking good year-round, it keeps people from tracking in the snow, mud and slush that puddles around the front door and creates a new obstacle for building occupants.
Walk on Paths That Have Been Cleared, and Avoid Taking Shortcuts
“Walk in designated walkways as much as possible,” the staff at the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois suggest. “Taking shortcuts over snow piles and other frozen areas can be hazardous. Look ahead when you walk; a snow- or ice-covered sidewalk or driveway, especially if on a hill, may require travel along its grassy edge for traction.”
One follow-up note: If a shortcut passes through a building or a tunnel, that’s a pretty safe detour.
Get Some Good Gloves, and Keep Your Hands Out of Your Pockets
Good gloves promote safe walking, at least in a roundabout way, because they keep your hands warm and thus out of your pockets, which is something you don’t want to do on a slippery surface.
“Hands in your pockets while walking decreases your center of gravity and balance,” Chesapeake Employers Insurance warns in a winter safety brochure it published [PDF]. “You can help break your fall with your hands free if you do start to slip.”
Take Short Steps with Your Knees Bent
Vacation rentals company Bennington Properties warns customers who might be renting a winter retreat to walk like a penguin, particularly so if the renter is unaccustomed to icy weather:
- “Point your feet out slightly.
- Spreading your feet out slightly while walking on ice increases your center of gravity.
- Bend slightly and walk flat-footed with your center of gravity directly over the feet as much as possible.
- Extend your arms out to your sides to maintain balance.
- Take short steps or shuffle for stability.”
Don’t Try Carrying Heavy Loads
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has an interesting piece of advice that many of us would not have considered: Don’t carry around heavy items that can throw off your balance. This is sensible particularly for college students who might not have grown up with Milwaukee’s weather.
“A heavy backpack or other load can challenge your sense of balance,” school officials say. “Try not to carry too much — you need to leave your hands and arms free to better balance yourself.”
Try Not to Step On Uneven Surfaces Such as Curbs
This is similar to the advice above about not walking on uncleared surfaces, but this is often unavoidable in parking lots and streetside parking. You or your passenger will probably have to deal with curbs and tire bumpers when parking, and those present new obstacles during wintery conditions, Oregon workers’ compensation nonprofit SAIF writes [PDF].
“If your parking lot has tire bumpers, it’s worth doing an assessment to see if the bumpers extend out beyond the edge of the car parked in that space,” the organization advises. “It is common for individuals to walk between the cars, and if the bumpers extend into this space, or no car is parked in the adjacent space, you have a prime opportunity for a tripping incident. Combine this with darkness, snow, leaves, or other obstructions, and it’s easy for someone to trip and fall.”
Use Proper Snow-Shoveling Technique
Shoveling snow stresses your back muscles, and an injury is pretty easy if you overexert yourself or don’t use an ergonomically sound shovelling motion.
“Try pushing the snow as opposed to lifting it or twisting and throwing it over your shoulders,” Baltimore physician Dr. Leigh Vinocur recommends. If a snow blower is available, she says, consider using that as much as possible.
Exercise Helps Fight Off Infection
A healthy, exercised body has an immune system that’s much more effective against germs that cause common colds, and Illinois physician (and bestselling author) Dr. Mercola writes that moderate exercise has been proven to be effective against colds when people feel early symptoms coming on.
“Other studies have clearly shown that regular exercise will help prevent catching colds in the first place. For example, one 2002 study found that those who exercised regularly suffered 20-30 percent fewer colds. Other studies demonstrate an even greater impact.”
Warm Up Before Doing Any Outdoor Exercises
Before you start trying outdoor runs to ward off early cold symptoms, be sure to take extra time to warm up. “Cold muscles are more injury-prone, so a short warm up prior to activity is important,” Sylvia Marten at Spine-Health.com writes.
“Start with some light exercises, followed by gentle stretching. Make sure to hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. If skiing, take at least one warm up run before heading to more difficult slopes.”
Go Easy on the Holiday Drinks
Getting yourself over-served at a holiday party puts you in double jeopardy. First, there’s the obvious issue of balance and coordination, which becomes exponentially more difficult in icy or wet conditions. Second, alcohol is bad for your immune system.
“Drinking too much can wear away the linings of your mouth and esophagus, making it easier for viruses and bacteria to enter your body and for cold or flu to take over,” Jennifer Acosta Scott writes at Everyday Health. “Women who drink alcohol should limit their intake to one drink per day, while men should have no more than two per day.”
Managing Winter Psoriasis
Sheri Green at PsoriasisCleanse.com is very familiar with psoriasis, having battled it in her own life, and she knows how much the dry cold of winter can aggravate that condition. Green has a nice post on her blog about dealing with psoriasis in the winter, and her advice includes liberally applying moisturizer, staying hydrated (both by drinking water and using a humidifier), and wearing layers that are both light and soft.
Take Vitamin D Supplements
We naturally get vitamin D from the sun, but when the weather is cold or the skies are gray, we tend not to get enough. In fact, most Americans suffer from a vitamin D deficiency.
Dr. John D. Day emphasizes the importance of getting sufficient vitamin D levels year-round in a post at the Intermountain Healthcare Blog Network: “Having sufficient levels of vitamin D has been shown to help prevent osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes, and it may slow the aging process.”
Dr. Day recommends that people eat two servings of fatty fish such as salmon each week during the winter months to make up for the sunlight we miss. For anyone who doesn’t eat fish, he suggests three daily cups of vitamin D-fortified milk.
Get a Flu Shot
In September 2014, the CDC recommended that most people over the age of 6 months old should get a flu shot, HealthDay.com reported. For a minority of the population, shots and vaccines are still a controversial topic, but the HealthDay story makes a strong case for flu shots: 90% of nurses and doctors reported getting theirs. The fact that healthcare professionals are taking their own medicine, literally, is as sound of an endorsement as possible.