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Avoid a Meltdown When Hitting the Slopes Tips for Safe Skiing and Snowboarding

(New York, N.Y. February 2004.) With winter in full swing, ski and snowboard enthusiasts are heading to the slopes. It's exhilarating and fun, but it can also be hazardous if people don't practice these activities with safety in mind, according to Dr. Geoffrey Westrich, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.

About 13 million Americans engage in these sports. In 2002, there were 7.4 million skiers and 5.6 million snowboarders, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. "Skiing and snowboarding are great activities in terms of having fun and getting a good workout," says Dr. Westrich. "But many people who spend weeks or months planning a ski vacation don't give a second thought to safety precautions that will keep them from being injured." Each year, skiers and snowboarders land in the emergency room due to broken bones, torn ligaments, sprains and other injuries.

Winter sport enthusiasts can minimize the risk of injury with proper conditioning before they hit the slopes and a realistic evaluation of their skills. "Skiing and snowboarding are strenuous activities, so 'weekend warriors' may run into trouble," Dr. Westrich says. He recommends getting in shape beforehand with a regiment combining strength, flexibility, endurance and balance. Strong leg muscles are crucial, and exercises such as squats, lunges, leg presses and step-downs can build strength. Cardiovascular training is also important because of the aerobic demands of the sports. Running, riding a stationery exercise bicycle and walking on the stairmaster build endurance.

Balance training, in which one trains the body to remain in control under unstable conditions, should be a particular focus for snowboarders, Dr. Westrich advises. Exercises such as push-ups and weight training also improve the upper-body strength necessary for these sports. People should make sure they warm up and do a thorough series of stretching exercises before going out, Dr. Westrich notes.

Using appropriate, well-maintained gear is extremely important. Problems with equipment can cause ski-related accidents, and Dr. Westrich recommends having it checked by a professional. Proper bindings are essential and should be adjusted to one's level of expertise, whether beginner, novice, intermediate or expert. Binding releases should be checked daily, as their functioning can be altered by salt, dirt and sand. It's also a good idea for people to step into their bindings, and then to turn their foot inward to cause them to release. It's best to repeat the exercise, the second time turning one's foot out to release the binding. Inability to perform this simple task may indicate that the bindings are set too high or that the equipment isn't working correctly. Helmets for skiers and snowboarders are also an important piece of equipment, and Dr. Westrich, who wears a helmet himself when he skis, recommends one for everyone who hits the slopes.

No matter how well-conditioned an athlete may be, exercising good judgment based on terrain conditions, following the rules of the sport, being aware of other skiers in the area and assessing one's own limits play major roles in injury prevention.

"All too often, people will tackle slopes that are beyond their abilities. This could lead to injury," Dr. Westrich says. "They should ski at a speed and pace that allow them to maintain control. And to avoid accidents, it's important to stay on well-marked and well-groomed trails."

When snow conditions are ideal, a thick, deep layer of snow forms a cushion for falls, but as weather conditions decline and the slopes get more icy, more falls occur, he notes.

Fatigue can lead to injury, and that last run of the day is often the most dangerous. "Skiers are most likely to get hurt when their muscles are fatigued. Paying attention to one's body, resting when fatigue sets in and resisting that urge for the final challenge of the day are major factors in preventing a painful injury and being sidelined for the rest of the season."

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