When it comes thriving—not just surviving—during winter and the inclement weather it often brings, we humans could learn a thing or two from animals who make their homes in arctic environs. Take penguins for example. According to physical therapist Ed Deboo, PT, these flightless birds have perfected the art of walking on ice, and medical experts agree.
Too often, we humans make the mistake of not changing the way we walk in relationship to the surface that they’re walking on, Deboo says. Normally we walk with our center of gravity slightly behind us, and our heel lands first before rolling onto the forefoot. “The challenging part about walking on ice is that the moment you land with heel strike, your weight is still behind you,” he says. “That’s when you slip, and then boom, you land on your bottom or off to your side.”
Most people believe navigating icy patches is just a matter of not moving too fast, but that’s not true, according to Deboo. “All that means is that you just slip and land slower and you fall slower,” he says. “But you still will slip on the ice because of the heel strike and your center of mass being a little bit further back.”
Learning to walk (or rather waddle) like a penguin can help prevent this from happening.
The keys to walking on ice like a penguin
When you watch a penguin walk, because their legs are so short, they never have the opportunity to have their center of gravity be anywhere but right underneath them, Deboo explains. Because of this, they naturally take short, choppy steps, and this gives them a better base of support.
“So the way we translate that over to humans is a slight hip hinge, slight bend at the knees, and then small steps, landing with your full foot on the ground,” Deboo says. “To land with your whole foot on the ground, you have no choice but to make a much smaller step. And by hinging at the hip, now your weight is a little bit over that foot directly as you put weight on it.”
Although experts recommend a more shuffling gait, Deboo makes a point of saying that it’s important to pick your entire foot up off the ground with each step—not just to glide it over the surface of the ice, which will likely not be smooth outside the way it would at a rink, for example. “There could be gravel underneath creating an uneven surface,” he says.
Also, keep your hands out of your pockets and slightly away from your sides to help you balance.
Other ice safety essentials
Besides adjusting your walking pattern, Deboo says it’s also important to pay attention to your footwear. “Obviously anything with a smooth sole is not ideal,” he says. “You wanna have something with a little bit of traction on it.”
He tells his patients to consider buying Yaktrax, a type of crampon that hooks on the bottom of your shoe to give you more grip on slippery surfaces. “Basically, it’s like putting cables on your tires, but for the bottom of your shoes,” he says, adding that trekking poles are also a helpful winter accessory to keep on hand if you can.
Investing in a good pair of winter boots is also a good idea. “Bring your work shoes with you, and then once you get to work, go ahead and change them out,” Deboo says. “Sometimes people don’t wanna take that extra step, and they get themselves into trouble.”
Lastly, whenever possible, walk around ice instead of over it. And although this might sound obvious, it’s worth repeating: Keep an eye on the weather report and try to avoid going out during dangerous conditions.
If you do fall, try this to stay safe
Accidents happen, and if you do wind up losing your footing while walking on ice, Deboo says there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of serious injury. Thinking about them in advance of treading on any frozen surfaces can help you mentally prepare (and hopefully react faster) if you take a tumble.
Most people fall backward on ice because of the way they walk, and their instinct is to stick out their arms in order to brace for impact, but doing so will most likely result in a broken wrist, according to Deboo. “Ideally you resist that pattern of wanting to reach out with your arms,” he says. Instead, “tuck your arms in and land on the side of your shoulder. If you can think about it, cradle your head.” So consider the penguin walk as your first resort and the fetal position as your last.