January 24, 2018

‘I’d rather walk like a penguin than fall’ – Purdue expert offers tips on winter walking

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — With winter in full swing and arctic temperatures and snow blanketing much of the country, Purdue professor Shirley Rietdyk says a few simple steps can help cut down the number of falls on icy pavement, or at least lower the risk of injury when falls occur.

“Look at the route ahead of you, take your time. I’d rather have you late for your next meeting than have a fracture or a sprain, she said.”

Despite what might look the best — a confident gait, where the walker is upright with strong posture and long strides — can cause problems in snowy or icy conditions. Rietdyk suggests walkers take a cue from those residents of the antarctic regions to better navigate winter walking.

“Take smaller step lengths, keep your weight forward over your front leg to keep the center of mass inside your base of support,” Rietdyk said. “When you fall from slipping, you tend to fall backward, and if you are more forward you’ll have a little more time to recover. That’s the ‘penguin walk.’”

High heels or smooth-soled dress shoes can cause instability in winter conditions, and even some boots that appear to be perfect for snow and ice might not provide enough traction when it’s icy outside. Rietdyk says talking with friends and general inattention can also cause a person to slip and fall. If you slip, walkers should bend their knees to get lower to the ground – a tip from Hollywood stuntmen — and attempt to tuck and roll. If those actions are not possible, the walker should at least put their arms out to break their fall. Rietdyk, a professor of health and kinesiology, talks about best practices in this YouTube video.

“A lot of older adults are wary of doing that because they’re afraid to break their wrist or their forearm, but if you don’t break the fall with your hands, your head or your hip is going to make a harder impact. A traumatic brain injury or broken hip is a much more severe injury to have than a broken wrist or broken arm. It is best to ‘catch the ground’ by flexing at the elbow and shoulders, but this requires practice.”

Rietdyk, a member of Purdue’s Human Motor Behavior Group, who has spent more than 20 years studying the human gait, says she keeps a close eye on how students and staff walk around Purdue’s campus, and admits that even she is not immune from an occasional fall.

“I fell six or seven times in a 13-month period,” she said. “For me it was being distracted, not paying attention.”

Rietdyk continues a study that found that young adults fall more frequently than expected, and most falls occur during everyday activities. More than 240 students have taken part by filling out daily surveys about their activities and frequency of falls.

“This idea that falls are catastrophic for older adults is true, but at the same time it’s not a trivial problem for young adults either,” she said. 

Writer: Tim Doty, 765-496-2571, doty2@purdue.edu 

Source: Shirley Rietdyk, 765-496-6703, srietdyk@purdue.edu

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