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How To Shovel All That Snow ... Safely

This is more snow than some of us have ever seen before. So, let's get to it ... a little bit at a time. Here are some tips on how to shovel it safely ...

Editor's Note: The National Weather Service says the blizzard overnight, a historic storm that brought more than 30 inches of snow to our area, is beginning to taper off. Around mid-day it should be safe to go out and assess the situation, and figure out how to dig out. The key is to make sure you are OK to do the work, and that you do it little by little. If you have additional tips, please let us know in the comment section. And by all means, share a picture of your finished work with this story! 

By Hank Drought

Copyright © by J. Henry Drought, 2011; reprinted with permission

Okay, the snow is here.  Lots of snow. More snow than some of us have ever seen before. First, you'll have to figure out how to get out of your house safely. then, you'll have to shovel out your shovel. Then, it's time to shovel.

Let’s go over some tips to shovel correctly and safely.

Let’s take some precautions.  Shoveling snow puts high stress on the body and heart.  Heart patients or people who have been told they have heart disease or symptoms of heart disease should not shovel snow.  Additionally, persons who are older, very deconditioned, and/or have other medical or orthopedic injuries should consider hiring someone else to remove the snow.  According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, each year over 100,000 people are treated by doctors and admitted to hospital emergency rooms because of snow shoveling and removing ice manually.  That’s a lot!  Don’t be one of those statistics.  Get a doctor’s clearance to make sure it’s safe for you to shovel.

If you are not in the high risk categories above, here is how to shovel snow correctly and safely:

1)    DRESS APPROPRIATELY:  Wear light, layered, and water-repellent clothing that allows for warmth and ventilation.  Wear head covering and mittens or gloves, warm socks, and avoid falls by wearing shoes or boots that have slip-resistant soles.

2)    CHOOSE A PROPER SHOVEL:  Ideally a snow shovel should come up to your lower ribs, or almost to the chest.  If the handle is too short, you will have to bend down too far to shovel; if the shovel is too long, you cannot keep the load close to your body (see #8).  A plastic shovel is often lighter and can be good for light snowfalls in areas where you don’t want to damage the shoveling surface; but it is less durable.  A metal or aluminum shovel is sturdier and often works better in heavier snowfalls, and it cuts through ice and packed snow better.  Be sure your shovel head or “scoop” is the appropriate size.  A shovel head that is too big can result in loads that are too heavy.  Ergometric shovels with bent or curved handles are easier on the back; these shovels allow you to shovel without bending so low for the snow.

3)    WARM-UP FOR 10 MINUTES:  Warm-up like you would before any other physical activity: 

a)     Perform 2 minutes of MARCHING IN PLACE.  Lift your knees high (but be careful not to slip and fall!).

b)    Do 20 BODY WEIGHT SQUATS.  Bend the knees; sit with your rear moving backward as if sitting in a chair; keep your back braced with the torso leaning slightly forward from the hips; make sure your knees don’t move forward over the toes.

c)     Bend over and TOUCH YOUR TOES (or as far as you can comfortably reach).  Move your feet apart if that’s easier.  Toe touches loosens up your lower back and

the hamstring muscles in the back of the thighs.  Bend the knees slightly if that helps increase your range of motion.  Hold the position and stretch; don’t bounce.

d)    Perform 20 TORSO TWISTS: Begin with feet shoulder width apart, with hands and arms out to the sides at shoulder height.  Twist the torso gently to the left and right.

e)     Do 20 ARM CIRCLES:  Circle your arms forward and backward to loosen up your shoulders.

f)     Perform 15 SHOULDER SHRUGS:  Raise your shoulders up and down as if you were trying to touch your ears to your shoulders.  This loosens up your upper back, cervical spine, and neck muscles.

 

4)    PACE YOURSELF AND BEGIN SLOWLY:  Snow shoveling is a muscular and aerobic exercise.  Start slowly and progress over time as with any exercise activity.

5)    PUSH THE SNOW RATHER THAN LIFTING IN WHEN YOU CAN:  Pushing the snow results in fewer lifts and is easier on your back and body.  Push rather than lift when you can.

6)    TAKE ONLY A LITTLE SNOW WITH EACH SHOVELFUL:  When lifting snow, scoop reasonable amounts with each shovelful.  Taking too much snow can make the loads too heavy and places a greater strain on your back and body.  If the snow is deep, shovel in pieces and layers.  Shovel incrementally.

7)    LIFT WITH YOUR LEGS :  When lifting, always use your legs more than your lower back.  Position your legs apart at shoulder width or more for greater leverage; bend the knees.

8)    KEEP THE SHOVEL HEAD AND SNOW CLOSE TO YOUR BODY.  Space your hands apart on the shovel.  Move your forward hand down the shovel handle toward the bucket to increase your leverage.  Snow shoveling with outstretched arms too far in front of the body is a no-no and creates stress on your lower back. 

9)    LIFT; THEN TURN:  Always lift the snow first; then turn.  Never lift and turn at the same time.  Lifting and twisting at the same time puts your back at greater risk!  Carry the snow to where you need to deposit it.  Step and turn your front foot so your toe points in the direction you want to deposit the snow; then turn the shovel and dump it.  Try not to “throw” the snow (unless you’re a 20-year old athlete); and never “hoist and heave” it over your shoulder and back.

10)  TIGHTEN YOUR ABDOMEN MUSCLES WITH EACH SHOVELFUL:  Tightening your abdomen muscles just as you begin to shovel and lift produces inter-abdominal pressure which helps support your lower back.  The more your abdomen and stomach muscles work, the less your lower back has to work.  This technique is not only important for safety; you’ll get a good abdomen workout as well.  Remember to keep breathing when you tighten your abdomen muscles.  Never hold your breath.  Holding your breath can increase your blood pressure.

11)  TAKE FREQUENT BREAKS:  Shoveling snow and ice is hard work; be patient and take your time.  Don’t overexert yourself.  If you feel tired or short of breath, stop and rest.  Rest for a minute or two for every 10 – 15 minutes of shoveling.  This is especially important if the snow is wet and heavy.  Stop shoveling immediately if you feel back pain.  And of course call or have someone call 911 immediately if you feel any hint of heart attack or stroke symptoms!  (Heart attack symptoms include: chest discomfort including pain, pressure, or squeezing; pain or discomfort in one or both arms, upper back, neck, or jaw; dizziness or nausea; and/or unusual shortness of breath.  Stroke symptoms include: sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion, or trouble speaking or understanding; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination; and sudden severe headache with no known cause.  If you experience any of these symptoms don’t delay!  Your life may depend on how fast you act.  Call or have someone call 911 immediately!

Denial is common.

Don’t drive to the hospital or doctor’s office.  Call 911 immediately, because emergency personnel can begin treatment on the way to the hospital.)

12)  DRINK PLENTY OF WATER WHILE SHOVELING:  Keeping yourself well-hydrated is very important!  Take a water bottle outside with you and drink during frequent breaks.  Choose water, or a water-diluted, non-caffeinated electrolyte sports drink, or water-diluted fruit juice.  (Don’t drink alcohol; limit caffeine; and don’t smoke.  Alcohol can constrict blood vessels in the brain and can cause dehydration and give a false sense of warmth; and caffeine and nicotine can constrict blood vessels and raise your blood pressure and heart rate.) 

13)  DON’T EAT A HEAVY MEAL BEFORE SHOVELING:  Eating too much before shoveling can increase the load on your heart.

14)  CLEAR THE SNOW EARLY & OFTEN:  When you can, shovel in stages.  Even if the storm hasn’t stopped yet, it is better to get out there and shovel less snow in more frequent and less demanding bouts than it is to clear a whole snowstorm in one outing.

15)  COOLDOWN & STRETCH:  After shoveling, do a 5 – 10 minute stretch, paying special attention to your lower back and legs.  First go inside where it’s warm and take off your outer snow clothing (coat, hat, gloves, and boots).  Then perform the following stretches (hold each stretch for a minimum of 20 – 30 seconds):

a)     Legs apart hamstring stretch – With feet spread apart (as wide as is comfortable), and knees straight but not locked, reach down to the floor and stretch the hamstrings in the back of your thighs.  You can also isolate each leg by grabbing behind one knee, calf or ankle, and gently pulling your torso over your thigh and bringing your forehead toward your knee.

b)    Sit in chair and bend over low back stretch – Your tired lower back will thank you for this stretch!  Sit in a chair with your legs and feet wide apart.  Bend forward and reach down to the floor as if you were picking up a dropped pencil.  Remember to hold the stretch a minimum of 20 - 30 seconds.

c)     Groin stretch – Sit on the floor and put the soles of your feet together so your knees point out to the sides.  Pull your feet in toward your rear.  Bend forward comfortably from the waist if you can.

16)  TAKE A LONG HOT SHOWER OR BATH:  There’s nothing better than a nice hot shower or bath after shoveling!  If you take a shower, lean forward or bend over and let the hot water run on your lower back (or course be careful not to fall!).  Take a couple of aspirin or ibuprofen with food, too, if you need to reduce soreness.

Hank Drought, MS, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D is owner of PersonalTrainers.com in Madison, Connecticut.  He has been a personal trainer and strength & conditioning consultant for over 30 years.  Hank was selected one of the “100 Best Trainers in America” by Men’s Journal in 2004, and was awarded the Personal Trainer of the Year in 2000 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.  Hank has been a certified as a personal trainer and strength & conditioning professional by the National Strength & Conditioning Association, American College of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise, and U.S.A. Weightlifting.  You can reach Hank Drought at www.PersonalTrainers.com, or by calling him at 203-245-1199, or by emailing him at: Drought@PersonalTrainers.com.

 Copyright © by J. Henry Drought, 2011.  Reprinted with permission.

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