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Shoveling Snow

Shoveling snow; a health hazard or a safe physical activity?

Winter has arrived; some people will say too soon, while others are ecstatic. With February-like weather in November, we might be looking ahead to a longer winter than what we’re accustomed too. Shoveling snow will become part of our regular routine for the next several months. Should we be looking forward to it or concerned (i.e. pain)?

Shoveling is certainly a type of exercise that requires some physical strength and cardiovascular stamina. Like other sports, a certain level of fitness and good form are required to minimize the health risks and injuries.

The action of shoveling necessitates upper body strength to lift the snow filled shovel (heavier with wet snow). If you’re in good health you should not fear shoveling, and maybe look forward to getting your daily dose of exercise. However, if you have been diagnosed with a cardiovascular/pulmonary condition you will want to take precautions with shoveling. Here are a few tips to reduce the stress on your cardiovascular/pulmonary systems:

  • BREATHE WARM AIR. Your lungs work better breathing warm air so cover your mouth and nose to avoid breathing cold air.
  • LIGHTEN THE LOAD. Avoid scooping big heavy chunks of snow. Chop up the snow and shovel lighter loads.
  • TAKE BREAKS. If you feel winded, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain or any other symptoms, STOP! Go inside relax and take a break. You can go back to shoveling later when you feel better and all symptoms complete subside.
  • KEEP YOUR ARMS LOWER. The higher you lift your hands, to more cardiovascular output is required. To reduce the stress on your cardiovascular system, keep your hands below shoulder level while shoveling (i.e. avoid throwing the snow over snow banks).

How about the risk of injury? As with most activities and sports, there is a risk of (re)injury with shoveling. We see frequently patients come in for shoulder, back, elbow and neck injuries from shoveling. Not to mention other types of injuries from falls. Here are a few suggestions for you to minimize the risk of injury:

  • WARM UP. You should prepare to shovel like you would for any sport. For example, go up and down stairs, walk down the street, do squats. Anything to get your heart pumping and your muscles warmer and “looser”.
  • USE YOUR LEGS MORE THAN YOUR BACK. Bending/lowering your body from the knees is recommended, and lessens the stress on your low back. It should look like a squat with weight shift from the back leg to the front leg. See blog on raking leaves for pictures on good technique (raking and shoveling are similar).
  • THROW THE SNOW IN FRONT OF YOU INSTEAD OF SIDEWAYS. Throwing snow sideways requires some degree of back torsion and puts you at greater risk of back sprains. Instead, move your front foot in the direction you want to throw the snow so you always end up throwing the snow in front of you.
  • WEAR SHOE GRIPS. Falling on the ice happens quickly. Prevent slip and fall injuries before they happen.

If you are already dealing with pain and physical limitations, you may want to get your injury looked at by one of our physiotherapists to avoid flare ups during the winter season. And if you’re fortunate to be healthy, hopefully these tips will help you stay that way. Don’t hesitate to consult with your physician if you believe you may be at risk of heart issues.

Shoveling snow is inevitable just like winters in Canada so we might as well enjoy it and have fun, but most importantly be safe!

Author- Marco is a physiotherapist with a career extending over 21 years. His main clinical interest is the treatment of back pain. He completed his Bachelor of Science (Physiotherapy) at Université Laval (Quebec City) in 1996 and his Masters of Clinical Science (Manipulative Therapy) in 2009 at Western University (London, Ontario). He became a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Manipulative Physiotherapy (FCAMPT) in 2009. His treatment philosophy is to empower his patients so that they become self-reliant mostly thru education and active rehab program. "Exercise is the best remedy."