I have to confess, I am not a winter person. It's actually not a big secret. My close friends and family know that winter is not my favorite thing. Of course, I do like the occasional picturesque snowfall when the world is covered in glimmering, peaceful white. But when winter means piles of snow (that need to be cleared), icy surfaces, traffic nightmares, brutally cold temperatures and very little sunlight, it can all be a little more than I want to bear.
As a Physical Therapist, I also have another reason to add to my list of complaints. Winter can negatively impact people's health, especially in the elderly. But, increased awareness of these potential threats can minimize the risks
There are the more obvious threats. Slipping on icy surfaces can lead to falls that can cause injuries from contusions to fractures. When outside in inclement weather make sure you are prepared with good shoes or boots that provide some traction. And, make sure to walk slowly with awareness that ice is sometimes hard to see. Since weather in New England can change at a moments notice, it's also a good idea to make a habit out of checking the weather forecast prior to heading out for the day so you know what to expect.
And then of course there is the shoveling. The scourge of everyone's spine. It doesn't have to be that way though. Shoveling the wrong way by bending through your back and utilizing the muscles of the spine to lift shovels heavy with snow will likely cause injury. It is best to utilize the power in your legs by squatting, hinging at your hips while tightening your abdominal muscles. Also, remember to keep the loads close to your body, and to avoid combined motions of lifting and twisting of the spine. Instead, turn your whole body by moving from your feet rather than twisting at your back. I am sure many of you have heard the above advice before, and maybe still get yourselves into trouble. One other very important thing to keep in mind is your level of fatigue. As you work your legs are bound to get tired, and when that happens you will think that you can just do a couple of shovels the wrong way. You might get away with it, but you might not. Take breaks when you feel yourself losing power, or even every 15 minutes. Remember if your gut is telling you what you are about to do is probably a mistake- it probably is - don't do it!
This is also a time to remember our neighbors who are physically not able to handle the snow. You may know an of an elderly person in your neighborhood, or that neighbor who you know struggles with chronic back pain. If you have a plow or a snowblower, that person would probably love you for helping them out!
There is one other hidden threat that the winter poses and that is a dramatic drop off in physical activity. This can effect all of us to some degree, but it can be particularly detrimental to the elderly. When temperatures are cold and streets are hard to negotiate due to snow and ice it can be hard to even get outside for a nice walk. Also, when the sun sets early we can all be tempted to go home, eat, sit in front of the t.v and crawl into bed. For younger populations the effects of decreased activity can be easily overcome in the spring when we start moving more again. For the elderly, this isn't always the case. As we age we tend to lose muscle mass. This process actually begins after the ripe old age of 30! This process results from both physical inactivity and a loss of muscle fibers that generate power. So, for the elderly, one hard winter could lead to a permanent decline in overall strength, which could potentially have a snowball effect (no pun intended) from year to year. In addition, because decreases in strength are also closely associated with a decline in balance, the risk of falls can increase dramatically after a few months of inactivity.
So, is this a lost cause, or is there something you can do? The good news is that there are many steps you can take to fend off this winter threat. If it's too cold to go outside for a walk, the mall can be a good alternative. You might also consider joining a low cost gym. The town of Wilmington is also lucky enough to have a great senior center that offers exercise classes. Find something that you like to do and find someone you can do it with. You are more likely to follow through with establishing a new habit if you have someone who can hold you accountable. You can even take steps within your own home. We are lucky (and sometimes unlucky) to live in an age of technology. There are plenty of exercise videos specifically designed for seniors on Youtube. Find one that you like, and do it every day! However, if you know you are having trouble with balance and strength, consulting with a Physical Therapist is a great way to get you back on track.
My hope is that you all have a happy, healthy winter. And, here's to (an early) Spring!!!
Elizabeth Manka PT, DPT
Elizabeth is a 2006 graduate of the MGH Institute of Health Professions where she received her DPT. She is currently a Physical Therapist at Leonardo Physical Therapy in Wilmington, MA. Her clinical interests are general orthopedics, spine, sports and dance medicine.