Winter is here, and that means slipping and sliding. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20,000 people die annually due to fall-related injuries. So what can we do to protect ourselves?

"So many people, especially in winter, they stop exercising and this means they get weaker and weaker," said Mike Ross, an exercise physiologist at Gottlieb Center for Fitness in Melrose Park, Ill. "When our muscles weaken and we have a change in sensory perception, balance deteriorates."

Ross said our eardrums can thicken as we age, which also throws off equilibrium. And when cells break down in the nervous system due to age, Ross said, reflexes can be delayed.

Here are his tips to avoid winter slips.

Check your footwear. "Look at the bottoms of the shoes you wear the most. If they're smooth, look to get them fixed or replaced."

Get your hands out of your pockets. "People put their head down, hands in their pockets and walk fast. "If you slip, you have nothing to break your fall."

Check the railings around your home. "This should be done every year. Ask yourself, 'If I were to actually fall, can this thing hold me up?' Do this near all doors, front and back."

Carry a cellphone. "The nightmare is, if you do fall and you can't get back up, what do you do? Stay there and panic? What if you fall again? Even if it's just to get the newspaper, bring the phone with you."

Plan ahead. "You can't move at your normal speed when there's ice. Give yourself extra time and slow down. You need to budget that time so you don't feel rushed and aren't putting yourself at risk."

Practice balance at home. "Whether it's climbing your stairs, or doing squats in a chair, you need to keep your balance muscles active."