Are you falling for winter?

Winter is here, and that means slipping and sliding will be commonplace if you live in a cold weather climate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 20,000 people die annually due to fall-related injuries. So what can we do to protect ourselves?

"So many people, especially in winter, they stop exercising and this means they get weaker and weaker," said Mike Ross, an exercise physiologist at Gottlieb Center for Fitness in Melrose Park. "When our muscles weaken and we have a change in sensory perception, balance deteriorates."

Ross said our eardrums can thicken as we age, which also throws off the equilibrium. And when cells break down in the nervous system due to age, Ross said our reflexes can be delayed. But these can be strengthened, he said, with practice.

"When you don't stimulate your balance, people are surprised when it is off, but it does deteriorate if you don't use it," he said. "I think it should be in the same category as fitness and strength training. You need to be training it on a regular basis."

Here are Ross' tips to prepare for the worst and avoid winter slips.

Check your footwear. "This sounds so simple but people don't realize how quickly their traction can be worn out," Ross said. "Look at the bottoms of the shoes you wear the most. If (they're) smooth, look to get (them) fixed or replaced. This is a lot less expensive than getting a new pair of shoes and it could save you from falling."

Get your hands out of your pockets. "People put their head down, hands in their pockets and walk fast," Ross said. "If you slip you have nothing to break your fall."

Check the railings around your home. "This should be done every year," he said. "Ask yourself, 'If I were to actually fall, can this thing hold me up?' Do this near all doors, front and back."

Bring a cell phone with you. "The nightmare is, if you do fall and you can't get back up, what do you do? Stay there and panic? What if you fall again? Even if it's just to get the paper, bring the phone with you."

Plan ahead. "You can't move at your normal speed when there's ice," Ross said. "Give yourself extra time and slow down. You need to budget that time so you don't feel rushed and aren't putting yourself at risk."

Practice balance at home. "Whether it's climbing your stairs, or doing squats in a chair, you need to keep your balance muscles active," he said.

"Another good exercise is standing with one foot right in front of the other, heel to toe. This will feel wobbly and less stable but it stimulates your balance. Standing on one leg while holding on to something is also a good one that you can do any time. And these are long-term strategies and tactics that can be the difference between breaking a bone or bouncing back in two weeks."

Twitter: @jenweigel

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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