Every winter, snow shoveling causes more than its share of injuries, ranging from strained or pulled muscles to thrown-out backs. Also, after a heavy snowfall, it’s not unusual to hear news reports of people who suffer heart attacks—sometimes fatal—while shoveling. These avoidable injuries and tragedies occur because it’s easy to underestimate how the sudden, intense exertion of snow shoveling taxes the body—especially when that body has been otherwise sedentary for most of the year.
Snow shoveling is hard on the heart because it can cause a rapid increase in heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, one study revealed that after shoveling snow for just two minutes, the heart rates of sedentary men exceeded the rate typically recommended for aerobic exercise. Exerting in cold air is also hard on the body and makes it more difficult to breathe.
In addition to people who lead a sedentary lifestyle, those who are at increased risk for heart attack while shoveling snow include those who have had a previous heart attack, those with a history of heart disease, those who smoke, and those with high blood pressure or high cholesterol. In addition, caffeine and nicotine should both be avoided prior to shoveling snow as these stimulants can increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to constrict, placing even more stress on the heart muscle.
As with any strenuous activity, you should warm up your muscles (taking a five-minute walk will suffice to warm your muscles) before you begin shoveling snow to minimize your chances of injury. If one of the aforementioned heart attack risk factors applies to you or you have any other health concerns, consult with your doctor before taking on the strenuous chore of shoveling snow.
The best way to prevent back strain and other muscle aches while shoveling is to use proper body mechanics. Your hands should be positioned about 12 inches apart on the shovel for the best leverage, and your feet should be approximately hip width apart for balance. Whenever possible, push the snow out of your path rather than try to lift it. If you must lift the snow, bend at your knees, keeping your back straight, and try to contract your stomach muscles as you lift. Avoid twisting your body or flinging snow long distances, and try to step into the throw when dumping snow from the shovel. If you experience any pain, shortness of breath, or unusually excessive perspiration while shoveling, stop immediately.
The type of shovel you use can make a difference when it comes to shoveling safety, as well. Choosing a model with a smaller blade will limit the amount of snow you can lift at one time, thereby minimizing the strain on your body. Also, a plastic blade will be lighter and easier on your back than a metal one. The shovel’s handle should be long enough so that you can maintain a comfortable grip and take a stroke while bent just slightly forward. To keep snow from clinging to your shovel and putting undue strain on your back, spray the blade with a lubricant before you begin shoveling.
To keep your body warm while preventing overheating, dress in layers and wear a warm hat, gloves or mittens, scarf, and boots that provide good traction. Keep in mind that just because you’re working on your own driveway or sidewalk doesn’t mean you’re any less vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia.
When beginning a session of shoveling, start out slowly and gradually build up to a steady pace—just as you would when doing any other form of strenuous exercise. Take frequent breaks if necessary. This slow-and-steady approach may stretch the chore out for a little longer, but it will be much easier on your heart and other muscles. If you feel overheated at any point, go inside, shed a few layers, and rest until you recover. Also, don’t forget to drink plenty of water to stave off dehydration.
If you aren’t certain that you can manage strenuous yard work, such as shoveling snow, without putting your health in jeopardy, don’t take the risk. A few dollars spent to have a neighbor or professional contractor clear your driveway and walks could be a very wise investment.