Here in the northeast, winter storms necessitate one or two people in each household be the “shovelers.” Even if you are lucky enough to own a snow plow or a snow blower, we all have to clear our steps and porches. Shoveling snow comes with a few risks: falling, heart attacks, and back injuries. With a little advanced preparation, an awareness of dangerous symptoms, and good form, you can clear your driveway and walkways safely all winter long.
The first step to shoveling safely is having the right gear. Outfit yourself with warm clothes, hats, gloves, and most importantly, slip-resistant boots. Slipping and falling is the most common way to get injured while shoveling snow. When people fall, they often fracture their wrists and ankles in ways that take significant time to heal.
By far the most concerning symptom you might experience while shoveling snow is chest pain. Shoveling snow requires a great deal of exertion. We measure how strenuous activities are in METS or metabolic equivalents. Snow shoveling can exceed 6 METS which is vigorous. That means you can reach your maximum heart rate within just a few minutes of starting to shovel. All of these factors combined with the cold weather, which constricts arteries, is a major strain on the cardiovascular system.
Especially for those who are not in good physical condition, I recommend pushing the snow using leg muscles, rather than lifting and throwing, which uses the arm muscles and is more strenuous. Go slowly and take frequent breaks. If you need to lift, take only small shovels full of snow at a time, especially when you feel fatigued. The right amount of snow to lift will depend on your physical condition, but 10 – 15 pounds is a good recommendation for most people. That is about the same weight as an average cat or about three bricks. If that feels like too much, simply take less.
While the job will take longer to accomplish, going at a pace reasonable to your fitness level will degrease your risk of injury. If at any point you notice pain in your chest, arm, or jaw or shortness of breath, you should stop shoveling right away and contact your physician or go to the Emergency Department.
Back injuries, while less common than falling and less serious than a heart event, can be very painful and debilitating. The most effective preventive measure is good form. Keep your hands wide apart on the shovel handle. This will distribute the weight more evenly. Bend at the knees, and keep your back straight to prevent strain. Move your feet as close as possible to the snow you are trying to move. Avoid reaching far out in front of you.
The least of the risks, frostbite and hypothermia, are still important to consider. Remember to dress properly. And if your gloves or other clothing gets wet while shoveling, especially in very cold temperatures, go inside for a change them before continuing.
While all of these tips are useful, nothing beats being in shape. Physicians of all types encourage their patients to exercise regularly exercise under the supervision of a physician. Regular exercise has been shown to prevent just about every major disease. It also prevents injuries while performing everyday tasks, like shoveling. Plus, it’s the single best thing you can do to protect and improve your overall health. A regular fitness routine will reduce your exposure to injuries while shoveling and performing other physical activities all year long.
Dr. Scott Rogge is a cardiologist and medical director of Cardiology at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.