Slow down to avoid falls when wearing masks

Face masks can obscure the ground just in front of our feet

Older people wearing face masks need to take extra care to make sure they don’t trip over obstacles when walking.

New advice from UK researchers says that taking more time, both before and during walking, is a good way of staying safe.

In an editorial published in the British Medical Journal, the academics from Brunel University London and the University of Exeter highlight how face masks obscure the ground just in front of our feet, an issue that’s been missing from guidance about mask safety.

“Wearing a face mask is essential to help limit the spread of COVID-19, so it’s essential that we identify issues that could affect people’s comfort and safety,” said Exeter’s Dr Toby Ellmers.

“Face masks block part of the lower peripheral visual field, which makes it more difficult for people to safely step over obstacles.

“It might seem common sense to make people compensate by looking at their feet more often when walking.

“But this may mean that people miss future obstacles in their path.

“More frequent head movements (to look down towards their feet) will also make it harder for people to maintain balance.

“These problems may result in trips or falls, particularly in older adults.”

Drawing on their expertise in balance control in ageing, Dr Ellmers and his colleagues Dr Elmar Kal and Dr Will Young formulated the advice that people “take their time” before starting to walk, and then walk a bit more slowly.

“Taking their time before walking will help people spot potential obstacles on their route, while walking somewhat slower could help prevent tripping,” said Brunel’s Dr Kal. “People will have more opportunity to plan ahead, and thus will need fewer large, rapid head movements.

“These relatively minor adjustments could help minimise any unintended effects of wearing a face mask on walking safety, and maximise the use of masks.”

The advice is also helpful for anyone whose balance is particularly reliant on vision, such as people with Parkinson’s disease or those whose sensory nerves are impaired by diabetes.

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