Snow shoveling may not seem like a highly demanding physical activity, but it actually can be quite taxing, especially considering most of us are less active in the winter months. The winter “hibernation” that many of us go through can cause deconditioning and an array of health issues. The impact that something like snow shoveling has on the body will be highly dependent on the individual, his/her current fitness level, and level of novelty of the movements required to shovel snow.
An active college student who lifts weights 4x/week will have likely built up a fair amount of fitness and would probably tolerate shoveling some snow pretty well. Similarly, a middle-aged town laborer who shovels gravel for a living would have built up tolerance, resilience, and familiarity to the shoveling movement pattern, that his/her body would greet snow shoveling as an old friend.
Most of us are not college weightlifters or have 9-5 jobs that require us to regularly use a shovel. For most of us, especially the older population, shoveling snow can be quite strenuous on our bodies. Sudden physical exertion, combined with cold weather, has been shown to increase both heart rate and blood pressure, even in healthy people. The mental and emotional stress of shoveling can also contribute to an overall decrease in tolerance to the activity. So, as you grumble under your breath about having to shovel, and as you plead and promise yourself that THIS is the year you are FINALLY moving to Florida, you’re not doing your body any favors. This also applies to heavy snow blowers, as well! Yes, the machine may remove the snow, but the man (or woman) behind the machine is still steering and navigating a 100 pound machine!
Here are some things you can do to prepare and keep yourself safe, when having to perform these daunting tasks:
- Stretch and warm up for a few minutes beforehand
- Do some sort of activity to get the heart rate up, such as climbing the stairs a few times, or walking on the treadmill, etc.
- Do arm circles forward/backward, arm swings in/out, bodyweight squats, or sit to stand from a chair.
- Wear appropriate clothing. You want to keep warm, but you also want to stay mobile. Consider layers and heated cold gear. Keep the feet warm, because if the toes and feet start to go numb, the chance of a trip and fall goes up.
- Push snow instead of lifting it. Push the snow and lift it with the legs. Switch arms, too. If you guide with the left and push with the right, be sure to switch it up after a few minutes or a few pushes.
- Salt your driveway before it snows, to make snow removal easier. This will also help prevent slips and falls on icy ground.
- This is extremely important and often overlooked. Many people recognize the importance of hydration when sweating during yard work in the summer, but hydration is just as important in the cold of winter. Being properly hydrated can improve strength, endurance, and reduce injury.
- Start shoveling early when expecting heavy snowfall. It’s much safer and less strenuous on your body to shovel a little at a time, a few times, than shovel a lot all at once.
- Make sure your vision is clear. Be sure your hats and scarves aren’t blocking ice or uneven surfaces on the ground or in front of you.
- Consult with your physician before shoveling if you have any medical conditions.
You may be sore after shoveling, but you should know the difference between soreness and injury. If you’re feeling sharp pain, numbness/tingling, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, or dizziness, you could be injured.
In general, try not to spend hours on end outside in the snow. This can lead to illness, and increase your chance of injury. Be knowledgeable on the signs of heart attacks as well as other injuries, and pay attention to the onset of any of these symptoms, as they could be serious.
If you’re injured or suspect you might be injured, be sure to seek medical attention from a qualified healthcare practitioner.
With that said, be sure to prepare some warm food and drinks for when you come back inside to enjoy your snow day! Because let’s face it…there’s S-NO-W day like a SNOW day!
Nicholas Licameli, PT, DPT
Clinical Director, Nutley Midtown
Nicholas Licameli, Physical Therapist, is Clinical Director of Professional Physical Therapy in Nutley Midtown, NJ. Nicholas received his Doctoral Degree in Physical Therapy from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey .