Published on January 26, 2021

9 Ways to Stay Safe while Shoveling

Shoveling SafelyThe blanket of white may be attractive from the inside, but eventually the snow must be moved. Heavy snowfall is not an invitation to suddenly start a strenuous exercise program. 

An estimated 1,200 people in the United States die each year of coronary artery disease during and after major snowfalls.

Moving heavy snow can also place additional stress and strain on backs and joints.

Shoveling can be made even more physically strenuous by cold air, which makes it harder to work and breathe. “People need to recognize that snow shoveling is a strenuous cardiovascular workout and they need to be cautious,” said David Dierks, D.O., Genesis emergency department physician.

To prevent injury while clearing snow, Dr. Dierks suggests the following tips:

1. Warm up first

Be sure your muscles are warm before you start shoveling. Warm up a little by walking, doing a few squats or walking stairs a few times. Cold, tight muscles are more likely to sprain or strain than warm, relaxed muscles.

2. Now that you're warmed up, it's time to stretch

Once your muscles are warmed up, you’ll want to stretch your quadriceps, hamstrings and the muscles in your calves and lower back,'' Dr. Dierks said.

Quadriceps (the muscle in the front of the thigh) -  stand on one foot, holding onto something stable and bend the other leg behind you.  Bring your heel toward your butt with your hand. Repeat with the other leg.

Hamstrings (the muscle in back of your thigh) - rest one leg on a chair and bend forward at the waist until you feel mild pulling sensation in the back of your thigh.  Repeat with the other leg.  

Calf muscles -  stand 10 inches away from a wall with your hands on the wall.  Bend one leg at the knee so you’re leaning into the wall while keeping your other leg straight behind you with your heel on the floor.  Repeat with the other leg.

Lower back - lie on the floor with your knees bent and gently rotate your knees from side-to-side.  Also pull your knees up toward your chest, either one or both knees at a time.

3. Dress in layers to protect your hands, feet, arms and legs

“You need clothing that will wick sweat away from you so you won’t get cold,” Dr. Dierks said. Cotton tends to keep moisture trapped next to your skin, so it’s better worn as an outer layer that can be easily removed.

Polypropylene and other synthetic fabrics designed to wick away moisture are good choices for inner layers. Wear a hat and gloves. Warm, waterproof boots with a thick tread will help you stay on your feet on ice and snow.

“It’s a good idea to alert someone in your household before you go out to shovel snow in case you fall and need help," Dr. Dierks said. In extreme weather, carry a cell phone, whistle or car keys outside with you to use to signal if you need help.

4. Learn how to move properly

While lifting snow, bend at the knees and hips, not at your waist. Pivot your feet rather than twisting your trunk. Keeping your head up will help you keep your back straight.  Never throw snow over your shoulder. Pushing the snow puts far less strain on the spine than lifting.

5. Lift safely

It’s less tiring and safer to lift several lighter loads than it is to lift one heavy load. It’s also important to keep the load as close to your body as possible.

6. Take frequent breaks

Shoveling for longer than 30 minutes puts you at higher risk for injury because your body is fatigued. Try taking a 5-minute break every 20 minutes if the snow is heavy.

7. Drink plenty of water

Drink at least one 8-ounce glass of water before and after snow shoveling and avoid beverages that can cause dehydration, such as those with alcohol and caffeine.

8. Use a small or medium lightweight shovel

Using an oversized shovel won’t clear your driveway any quicker and may increase your risk of injury.

9. Listen to your body

If you experience any warnings signs for heart attack, stop what you are doing immediately and call 9-1-1. “If you’re overweight, have high blood pressure, smoke, or are out-of-shape, you’re at higher risk for a heart attack during exertion, and should get your doctor’s ‘OK’ before shoveling any snow,” Dr. Dierks said.  

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