How to avoid a fall (and how to fall properly if it's unavoidable)


If you fall backwards, keep your chin tucked in to avoid slamming your head on the floor. — AFP

Whether you’re brisk-walking or ambling through the (currently closed) parks, do pay extra attention to the ground you’re stepping on.

This is especially so if you live in a country like ours where pedestrian walkways, sidewalks and pavements leave a lot to be desired.

Uneven, loose, slippery and broken tiles, along with wires and rods peeking from the floor can be found in just about every part of town, posing a hazard that can result in walkers tripping, sliding, falling and injuring themselves, which I recently experienced myself (more on that later).

So, should you be looking down when you walk?

Definitely not, as this will throw your body off-balance and you could potentially end up falling.

Here’s why.

The brain is wired to think that the body wants to move in the same direction you are looking.

Hence, when you are looking at the ground, that’s where the brain thinks you want to go, and wham, you’re on the floor before you know it.

It’s something I’ve been reminded of a zillion times and have reminded my students of myself during the pre-Covid days when we were able to indulge in walking and jogging sessions.

Ideally, you should keep your eyes and gaze forward, focusing about 3-6m in front of you.

This enables you to scan your immediate surroundings and surfaces for possible dangers.

Shift your eyes downward from time to time to check for nearby hazards, but do not tilt your head downwards to do it, i.e. your head should remain upright with only your eyes lowered.

Looking down at your feet or phone too frequently can also put unnecessary strain on your neck – the infamous text neck!

As the saying goes, walk with your head held high.

While still looking ahead in the direction you are going, use your peripheral vision to become more aware of your immediate surroundings.

While your central vision allows you to focus in on finer details and colours in front of you, your peripheral vision picks up on movement coming from your sides.

Try this simple exercise: Sit on a chair and look straight ahead, with your hands on your knees.

Try to “see” your hands while still focusing ahead.

Then slowly lift your arms out to the side to shoulder level and move them until they come into view, without shifting your gaze.

It’s also tempting to turn your head while walking, but please stop in your tracks before responding if someone calls you from the back.

Many people stumble and fall because they lose their bearing when their head turns around too fast while walking.

Proper foot work

Think heel-ball-toe when your foot strikes the floor.These uneven and broken tiles are a common sight in many of our pedestrian walkways. — FilepicThese uneven and broken tiles are a common sight in many of our pedestrian walkways. — Filepic

The “proper” pattern should be to strike the ground with the outer part of your heel and slightly move your foot inwards (light pronation movement) to lay it flat.

From there, your body’s propulsion should be triggered by the front part of your feet for an optimal movement.

However, this ideal pattern is pretty rare.

Indeed, a foot naturally has pronation (moving inwards) and/or supination (moving outwards) phases while walking.

Whenever possible, walk with your feet pointed slightly outward, especially when making wide turns at corners.

Also, make sure to pick your feet up as you walk.

Older people are tempted to sense hazards by sliding their feet so that they can feel the ground first before putting their weight on the leg.

It is much safer to pick the feet up so that the foot comes directly down onto the ground instead of shuffling.

It’s also pretty common to find people tripping over their slippers and strapless sandals when they walk.

I’ve even seen avid hikers on forest trails in flip-flops – I don’t know how they do it!

Flip-flops are considered the most dangerous footwear on the market, although it feels nice to air the feet once in a while.

In addition to the exposure to bacteria in the environment and the lack of support, they pose a hazard because they change the way you walk and rarely have a secure gripping surface.

The design of flip-flops and some sandals requires you to curl your toes to keep them on.

This curling action changes your gait, and that, in turn, increases the risk for a fall.

Even with this curling action, many people slip, trip and fall when the flip-flop or sandal slides off their foot or gets stuck on an object on the floor.

Slipping is typically influenced by three factors: the walking surface, your footwear and the material you slipped on.

Footwear is the component that you have the most control over to minimise your risk of slipping and falling.

However, despite all the precautions you might take, it’s still possible to slip, trip and fall.

Broken foot

Flip-flops pose a hazard because they change the way you walk and they rarely have a secure gripping surface. — AFPFlip-flops pose a hazard because they change the way you walk and they rarely have a secure gripping surface. — AFP

I suffered the mishap a fortnight ago after work, even though I was wearing a good pair of office shoes.

The front of the shoe on my back leg got lodged in a small gap in between uneven tiles as I was walking, right in front of a local council building.

Instead of falling forward and smashing my face and the pack of fresh eggs I was holding, I tried to break my fall by leaning to the side.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to yank my foot out until I hit the ground, landing on my elbow, by which time the mid-foot had twisted and the fifth metatarsal bone snapped into two.

Ouch, it definitely was.

So now I’m confined to a wheelchair and crutches for the next two months, maybe longer, throwing a spanner in my fitness regime.

Oh well, that has forced me to find creative ways to condition the body using three limbs.

If you’re caught in an unavoidable situation like mine, try to break your fall by doing the following:

  • If falling forward, turn your head to the side and try to hit the ground with your forearm to reduce the likelihood of a wrist fracture.

    Avoid letting the rest of the body touch the ground.

  • Never lock your joints, and keep your wrists, elbows and knees bent instead.
  • Do not try to break the fall with your elbows.

    When falling, the objective is to have as many square inches of your body contact the surface as possible, thus spreading out the impact of the fall.

  • If you can think fast enough, twist or roll your body to the side as you fall.

    It is better to land on your buttocks and side than on your back.

  • Grab your hip with the opposite arm.

    If falling to left, use the right arm to grab the left hip and roll on your back.

  • If falling backward, tuck your chin in to avoid hitting the head, round your back and fall on your forearms first.

And in case you’re wondering about that pack of eggs, I managed to salvage all but one.

Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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