Snow removal is a common cause of injury during the winter months, with hospitals in the U.S. treating on average an estimated 11,500 snow shoveling related injuries and medical emergencies each year. For many, clearing the driveway after a heavy snowfall is an unavoidable chore. Shoveling can be good exercise, but it also carries a degree of risk. Cold weather and normally sedentary people makes snow shoveling the perfect vehicle for muscle strains, low back injuries, herniated discs, and even heart attacks. It’s important to remember that snow shoveling can place tremendous demands on the body, and should be regarded with the same caution as any other strenuous exercise. Here are some tips to protect yourself when the next winter storm hits:
1. Choose the Proper Shovel
Ergonomic shovels feature a bent shaft designed to allow you to keep your back straight and maintain a good grip on the shovel. A curved handle minimizes the amount of bending required to get the blade on the ground. The handle length should be long enough to prevent excessive bending, but not so long that blade gets positioned far away from your body. As a general guide, the shovel should be at elbow height when stood upright. Using a shovel with a small, lightweight, plastic blade will help reduce the amount of weight lifted with each load.
2. Warm-Up Before Heading Out
As with other types of exercise, warming up properly before shoveling can help lower the risk of injury to muscles and joints. While inside, perform stretches and body weight exercises for 5 to 10 minutes beforehand, to loosen up your joints, warm-up your muscles, and increase circulation. Run through the shoveling motion several times in each direction before picking up the first pile of snow.
3. Wear Proper Footwear
Slipping or falling greatly increases the hazards of snow shoveling. Make sure to wear boots with a good tread, or other high traction footwear, to help maintain your balance. Be on the lookout for patches of ice that may be partially covered with fresh snow. Slip-on ice spikes for your boots are convenient, inexpensive, and can be a real life-saver in icy conditions.
4. Use Good Form
Lifting with proper mechanics is essential for avoiding a back or shoulder injury while shoveling.
- Stand facing the snow you’re going to shovel, with your feet wide apart and one foot placed slightly in front of the other
- Bend at the knees and not with your low back. Avoid rounding your back by keeping your torso as vertical as possible. The lifting motion should be driven by the straightening of your knees and not by scooping with your arms
- Keep the shovel close to your body while carrying the load. When disposing the snow, don’t extend your arms or throw the snow over your shoulder
- Keep your hands spaced far apart on the shovel’s handle to increase leverage
- Don’t twist. Take small steps to turn your whole body to face the location where you plan on emptying the shovel
5. Pace Yourself
Don’t try to complete the job all at once. Be sure to stop and rest every 10 or 15 minutes while shoveling to avoid overexertion. If you have a large area that needs to be cleared, consider breaking up the work over several days to give your body adequate recovery time. Listen to your body for cues to slow down or stop altogether.
6. Lift Small Loads
Shovel small amounts at a time, especially if dealing with heavy, wet snow. Always take appropriate sized shovelfuls regardless of how deep the snow is or the size of the blade you’re using. A shovelful of packed snow can weigh upwards of 20 pounds so consider removing the snow in layers if it is more than a few inches deep.
7. Dress Warmly
Always wear several layers of warm, comfortable clothes that allow your body some freedom of movement. Keep yourself protected from frostbite by covering your head, face, and hands. Gloves should be flexible enough to allow you a good grip on the shovel and boots should be high-cut and water-resistant to keep your feet dry.
8. Clear Snow Often
If conditions are safe enough to be outside, clear what has already reached the ground while the snow is still falling. It’s easier to clear several inches than several feet. Removing snow at regular intervals also prevents the snow from compressing and becoming dense and guards against the formation of large snow drifts.
9. Stay In Shape
Returning to a sport or any other form of strenuous exercise after a long layoff carries a high risk of injury. Snow shoveling can be dangerous simply because it’s not an activity that gets done for nine months out of the year. There is both an aerobic and weight-lifting component to clearing snow, so regularly performing both types of exercises throughout the year will keep you better prepared when winter rolls around.
10. Don’t Shovel If Not Physically Fit
As with any exercise, if you have a history of heart problems, or have had back injuries in the past, check with your doctor first to decide if you’re healthy enough to be shoveling snow. A snow blower may not completely eliminate the labor involved, but it does reduce much of the strain of clearing snow when used properly. Someone in poor physical health should consider delegating the snow shoveling duties to a younger relative or neighbor.