Oh, the weather outside is frightful ... or is it? Our Copper Country winters can be gorgeous and treacherous at the same time. Many Yoopers enjoy getting out in the snow to walk and take in the beauty of this winter wonderland, while others cringe at the thought of being out in the "white stuff." Like it or not, we all have to brave the weather at some point, and it is important to keep safety a top priority to prevent falls and injury.
Proper footwear is essential when walking on snow and ice. At a minimum, boots must have adequate tread to grip the snow much like the snow tires we put on our vehicles. My husband, an engineer, explained to me that there is much better traction between snow and snow, rather than rubber and snow. This is why a good snow tire or snow boot will collect snow in the tread. Smooth-soled shoes or boots with very little tread can cause you to lose your balance, even on a short walk from your car to the store. If you cannot afford new boots, consider buying ice cleats, such as "Yak Trax" to slip over your current boots or shoes. They are inexpensive and can make a world of difference. One thing to remember, be sure to remove the ice cleats before walking indoors. Also, it is important to remove snow from boots and shoes before walking indoors, especially in stores or businesses, to ensure you do not slip and fall.
It seems the colder and nastier the weather, the faster people try to walk in parking lots. That is understandable, we want to get where it's warm as fast as possible but it is a recipe for disaster. We need to slow down in slippery parking lots so that we are in control of our bodies. When walking or moving slowly, we can effectively make adjustments to balance and posture to prevent falls, but when we rush, we cannot make the necessary corrections quickly enough, and a fall is more likely. It is vital to stay focused on your walking when outdoors in the winter. Often, falls can occur while people become distracted, such as when searching in a purse or pocket or talking on a cell phone.
Dressing appropriately for the weather conditions will help to make our outdoor time more pleasant. Our winter weather can be so unpredictable. It may be sunny and calm in the morning, but snowing and blowing in the afternoon, so we must have the right layers to keep warm and comfortable all day. Several thin layers are typically better than one or two thick layers, not only for versatility, but also for comfort. It is convenient to take off a thin layer or two, leaving more layers to keep warm and comfortable. If you only have a thick, fluffy down jacket over a T-shirt, you will have to choose between being too hot or too cold. Either way, you will not be comfortable. You are best to choose a base layer made of material other than cotton, which gets wet and keeps that moisture close to your body. Silk or polypropylene are much better at wicking sweat away from your body to keep you warm and dry.
The right gear makes all the difference. If you need to use a cane or crutches, please consider attaching an ice pick grip to the bottom. This will allow improved traction and help you to feel more confident on snowy or icy surfaces, and you can swing it out of the way when you are walking indoors. Always use a handrail when walking on steps to improve balance. If you should lose your footing on steps, you are much more likely to stay on your feet when you can use the handrail to help regain balance.
There are many benefits to walking outdoors for exercise, even in the winter. Most of us spend less time outdoors in cold weather, but we need the exposure to sunlight to help improve our mood and prevent seasonal depression. Walking burns calories and improves energy, and this may be even more noticeable in the winter (especially after the holidays). Finally, and perhaps the biggest advantage of walking outdoors in the winter versus the summer, you can rest assured there will be no mosquitoes!
Editor's note: Caroline Gwaltney, MSPT, CWS, is a physical therapist, certified wound specialist and rehab team leader with Aspirus Keweenaw Home Health & Hospice.