Ottawa is a great city for walking. It’s a walkable city, until it isn’t. This reduction in walkability is a direct result of wintry conditions: icy sidewalks, unplowed sidewalks, and blocked crosswalks are just a few of the problems that impact our ability to walk safely and avoid falling.
In early January, I participated in the Snow Moles’ Walkability Audit of Old Ottawa South. The Snow Moles is an initiative of the Council on Aging of Ottawa. Snow Moles are volunteers who report on what it’s like to walk outside on a winter day in Ottawa. The information they gather will be used by Seniors Watch Old Ottawa South (SWOOS), OSCA, and the Council on Aging of Ottawa (COA) to inform the City and others of ways that winter walkability can and should be improved.
Falls are not age-specific, but your risk of falling increases as you age. And if sidewalks are slippery due to snow and ice, anyone is at risk of falling.
Intrepid volunteers like the Snow Moles are making the sidewalks safe for walking. But before you leave home, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of falling.
As a fitness professional, I often get asked about the “best” exercise for a particular fitness goal or body part: eg, “What’s the best exercise to improve my balance?” Or, “what’s the best exercise to strengthen my quads?” The best exercise is the one you’re going to do.
The exercises listed below are some of my clients’ favourites, and include both strength and balance components. Both are key factors in fall prevention. Strong muscles and bones allow us to lift our legs and feet over obstacles like pesky snow banks that haven’t been cleared. Or your big toe: when the muscles along the shin bone are weak, it’s more difficult to lift the front of your foot off the ground as you walk. Then your own body becomes a trip hazard.
And balance is a critical component of walking - because walking is essentially a weight transfer and balance exercise. One foot, then the other. Repeat. If you’re having trouble with balance, how will you be with walking? Well, walking will also be difficult, and that’s when you’re most likely to risk a fall.
Try these exercises in your home. Focus on slow, purposeful movements. Hang on to something solid if you need help with balance. And make sure the area is free of obstacles if you’re moving around.
Draw the letters of the alphabet with your foot to strengthen muscles around your ankle.
High March (Stomp)
Lift one knee to hip level and hold for 5 seconds. Lower the leg and switch sides.
Stand tall with your feet shoulder width apart. Rise up onto the balls of your feet, avoiding leaning forward. Hold for 3 seconds, then lower.
Face your kitchen counter and hang on with both hands. Open your legs to shoulder width and lower your behind down and back as if you’re sitting in a chair. Keep your back straight, knees above the feet, and weight on the heels. Push into your heels to come back up to standing.
Switch Up Your Walking
Sideways walking strengthens little-used muscles along the inside and outside of your legs. Backwards walking helps you strengthen your brain-body connection by creating new pathways in your brain, teaches your body to rely on the messages the nerves in your feet are sending to the penthouse, and it improves coordination in your lower body. NOTE: make sure the space is clear of obstacles and hang on to something solid.
Stand on one leg and try to hold for 30 seconds. Put your foot back down and repeat on the other side. To make it more challenging, try turning your head to one side.
As we age, our balance is impacted negatively by our aging bodies:
cells die in our vestibular system, which is connected to the centre in our brain that controls balance;
- our vision declines and with it, our depth perception;
- changes to our blood pressure may cause dizziness, lightheadness or blurriness;
- we lose muscle mass, strength, and power — this can slow our reaction time if we trip;
- our reflexes and coordination also decline; and
- a variety of health problems may also impact our balance, including arthritis, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. (1)
Regular physical activity is key to maintaining good balance. An exercise program that focuses on specific balance exercises as well as core strengthening and movement patterns will improve balance and stability, not to mention daily function. Working on improving your balance and strengthening your muscles will increase your confidence and reduce the risk of a fall.
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Amanda Sterczyk is an international author, Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM), an Exercise is Medicine Canada (EIMC) Fitness Professional, and a Certified Essentrics® Instructor.