Skip to main content

Welcome to Health Advisor, where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

Justin Vanderleest is a Toronto-based physiotherapist with a Master's of Clinical Science in Advanced Orthopaedics and Manipulation from the University of Western Ontario. He is a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Manipulative Physical Therapists. An elite squash player and former national champion sprint canoeist, Vanderleest has developed special interests in training programs and injury prevention. Analysis of precipitating factors, and patient-specific corrective exercise are hallmarks of his approach. You can follow him on Twitter @JDvanderLeest

If you're at peace with the polar vortex, winter in Canada provides many enjoyable opportunities for outdoor recreation. However, if you don't get as excited about skiing, skating, and tobogganing as our Olympian compatriots in Sochi, you might more likely equate this time of year with uncomfortable cold weather and the myriad inconveniences of snow and ice.

Among those inconveniences is the risk of falling on ice. Tens of thousands of Canadians fall on ice each year. Many falls are relatively inconsequential. But, falling on ice can be more than an inconvenience. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, over the past five years Canadians have been hospitalized between 5,312 and 9,121 times annually due to falls on ice. Approximately 70 per cent of those hospitalizations happened to people over 50 years old. Over 30 per cent were people over 70 years old.

In the elderly, hurting oneself in a fall can lead to a cascade of health consequences resulting from impaired mobility. It is worth taking precautions to avoid falling rather than treating it as an unfortunate inevitability. Here's what you can do:

Shovel the snow and scrape the ice Keep your walkways cleared. If you can't shovel your own, hire someone to help. It's easier to walk on even pavement than snow, and it should be less slippery. If you're in an area that receives mail delivery, your letter carrier will thank you too. According to Canada Post, in 2007, they had 1,500 weather-related injuries.

Sprinkle salt Salt acts as a catalyst, lowering the temperature required to melt snow and ice. In Eastern Canada, winter temperatures hover around freezing much of the time. At these temperatures, sprinkling salt over a cleared walk way will help prevent ice from forming, if there is moisture on the pavement. However, remember that February still produces plenty of temperatures cold enough to freeze salt water.

Be careful from dusk to mid morning When temperatures hover around freezing, there are daily melting and freezing cycles. Snow and ice melt during the day and the slush and water freeze overnight or whenever the temperature drops. Again, clear the slush before it re-freezes. But pay attention at times when the ice has reformed and visibility is poor. Depending on your mobility, it may be a good idea to avoid walking outside at night and in the early morning.

Be careful stepping up or down and on slopes Most falls occur stepping from one height to another. Keeping steps clear is a must. Whenever possible hold a handrail or ask for assistance. If you are unsure of your ability to negotiate the transition, do not take the risk.

Don't walk with an obstructed view Carrying large items can make it hard to see the ground in front of you. This is especially dangerous when stepping up or down. Avoid carrying larger items, if you are unsure of your footing.

Avoid climbing ladders or onto rooftops It comes as no surprise that when people fall from heights, it results in the most serious injuries. Metal ladders and sloped rooftops covered in snow and ice are particularly dangerous in winter. Rooftops should be avoided at all costs.

Wear traction devices on your shoes There are many products that you can strap onto your shoes or screw into the soles of your boots to improve traction on ice. These products are the equivalent of snow chains or studded tires for your feet. Runner's World magazine tested 17 products and they provide a comprehensive review of the best products out there.

Exercise to improve balance, flexibility and strength Good balance goes a long way toward preventing falls. There are countless exercises to improve balance. One of the easiest is simply standing on one foot. Try to keep your balance for a full minute. If you can't, you might have a balance deficit. In addition to balance, flexible and strong core and leg muscles can help keep you upright. If you do fall, good upper body strength helps prevent upper body injuries. A well-rounded exercise routine is a good idea for anyone, especially anyone interested in preventing falls. If you aren't already involved in a good fitness routine, consult the experts at your local gym or clinic. Group classes, personal training and physiotherapy are all great options for guidance in improving your balance, flexibility and strength.

Whatever your strategy, remember to be pro-active in preventing falls. Falling is always accidental. But, you can decrease your risk of falling significantly. It could be the most important thing you do for your health this year.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct