Depending on your age and fitness level, you should consult your physician before shoveling snow, especially if you have a heart condition. Since snow shoveling is a repetitive activity, it can cause muscle strain to the lower back and shoulders. Here are some suggestions and tips to lessen the risks.
1. Pick the right tool
A shovel with a curved handle or adjustable length will minimize bending at your back. To measure the appropriate shovel handle length, slightly bend your knees, flex your back 10 degrees or less and hold the shovel as if you would start a "shoveling stroke." If you have to bend more than that, the handle is too short for you. Test shovels out in the store to see which one fits you best. Also, keep in mind that plastic shovel blades are lighter than metal ones and put less strain on your back.
2. Dress appropriately
Proper attire is critical. Keep extremities such as your ears, hands and feet protected. Dress in layers because as you work you may become warmer. Wear boots with treads to prevent slipping. Ice can form under the snow and it may be slippery.
3. Warm up
Just like with any exercise, it's important to stretch and warm up your muscles before shoveling. Some simple pre-shoveling stretches can help:
- Get your blood flowing with a brisk walk or march in place for a few minutes.
- Stretch your low back and hamstrings (the large muscles in the back of your thigh) by bending forward at the hips, keeping your back straight, until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh.
- Warm up your shoulders by doing shoulder shrugs, giving yourself a hug and making windmill motions with your arms.
4. Use the right technique
Your grip should be about 12 inches apart on the shovel to allow increased leverage and reduce strain on your muscles. Whenever possible, push the snow forward, using your legs to do most of the work, instead of lifting. If you must lift the snow, grasp the handle with one hand close to the blade and other hand on the handle. Squat your legs rather than bending at your waist. Bend your knees, lift with your legs, turn your whole body and deposit the snow. Do not twist at your trunk or throw snow over your shoulder. Lift smaller loads and remember that wet, packed snow is heavier than dry, powdery snow.
5. Take frequent rest breaks
Every 5 to 10 minutes take a rest break. Stand up straight and extend your back by placing your hands on your hips and leaning backward to reverse the excessive forward bending. Remember to pace yourself. If you become out of breath, take a break. Frequent breaks, even if only for a couple of minutes, will help conserve your energy to get the job done. Think of shoveling snow as an exercise workout and keep hydrated. You may need more water than when you exercise in warm weather, as the air is usually drier. If you feel pain, stop.
6. Take heart concerns seriously
The physical strain and stress shoveling puts on the body in a short amount of time can create an isometric contraction within the thoracic cavity, causing a sudden spike in heart rate, blood pressure and potentially precipitate cardiac arrhythmias. Exposure to the cold weather also makes the heart work harder as the body attempts to keep one warm. In addition, low temperatures cause the blood vessels to narrow, which increases blood pressure because more force is needed to pump blood through the narrowed veins and arteries. The narrowing of blood vessels supplying blood and oxygen to the heart can lead to chest pain and/or discomfort.
People who have a pre-existing cardiac condition should not shovel snow without approval from their physician. If you experience any shortness of breath, chest pain or other signs of a heart condition while shoveling, stop and seek medical care.
7. Stretch afterwards
When done shoveling, stretch your arms and legs as before. Remember to stretch the back by doing some back extensions as described above.
Remember, snow shoveling is a strenuous exercise. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle, it may be smarter to pay someone to perform this task than risk injuring yourself.
Contributors to this article:
Lindsey Hejlek, MPT, Physical Therapist – St. Luke's Therapy Services
Mary McMann, MPT, Physical Therapist – St. Luke's Therapy Services
Tonna Kary, M.S., Certified Exercise Specialist, Cardiac Rehabilitation – St. Luke's Therapy Services
St. Luke’s Hospital is an independent, nonprofit healthcare provider committed to improving the quality of life for its patients and the community. In its 150-year history, St. Luke’s has grown from a single hospital location to an advanced network of care. It provides personalized healthcare services in over 60 specialty areas at its 493-bed hospital in Chesterfield, Mo. and offers 25 other locations across the greater St. Louis area, bringing quality healthcare services close to home. St. Luke’s is nationally-recognized for quality care and consistently earns high patient satisfaction scores. In addition, St. Luke’s is the exclusive St. Louis affiliate of the nation’s No. 1 heart hospital, Cleveland Clinic’s Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute. For more information, visit stlukes-stl.com.
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