How to Shovel Snow Without Ending Up in the ER
10 tips for safer shoveling
Few things can rival the stark beauty of freshly fallen snow, but shoveling that frozen fluff can be hazardous to your health.
It’s easy enough to throw out your back trying to clear the driveway or sidewalk after a snowstorm. But for older adults, there’s a more chilling worry. “The most concerning problem … is the risk of heart attacks,” says Michael Gleiber, MD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Every year, about 11,500 Americans end up in emergency rooms due to snow shoveling, and about half of them land there because of heart trouble according to one study.
Don’t let those numbers give you cold feet about shoveling. Follow Gleiber’s tips for making the snow job safer, easier, and yes, even fun.
If you have a heart condition, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), arthritis, or other health problem that may be made worse by physical exertion in cold weather, ask your doctor if you’re healthy enough to shovel before the next storm hits. Remember, hiring the teenager next door is always an option.
1. Beware the morning rush. “Typically, people wake up in the morning after a snowstorm and they want to start shoveling as soon as possible to clear the driveway or walkway so everybody can get to work on time,” says Gleiber. “But going right from bed to snow shoveling can be dangerous for your heart. In the morning, your blood vessels are vasoconstricted, meaning blood flow to your heart and major muscle groups is restricted; going right out into the cold weather can constrict your blood vessels even more, raising your heart attack risk.” The solution? Warm up first. Walk on a treadmill or around your house for 10 minutes, or do some simple stretches or lunges to get blood flowing.
2. Use the right shovel. “Choose a snow shovel with a long lever arm and a flat(ish) blade — parallel to the ground — which makes lifting snow easier and reduces strain on the back,” says Gleiber. “Do not use the same shovel that you use to dig up your garden.” The AAOS recommends choosing a snow shovel that is comfortable for your height and not too heavy relative to your strength.
3. Drink up (but skip the booze). “Don’t just drink your morning coffee and go out. Be sure to drink water, too, to stay hydrated.” Shoveling at night? Do it sober. Consuming alcohol before you shovel may give you a false sense of warmth and affect your ability to recognize an emerging health problem, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
4. Forgo the farmer’s breakfast. Eating a big meal right before you tackle the white stuff can put extra strain on your ticker, according to the AHA. If you’re trying to keep pace with a big snowfall, eat small, healthy meals every few hours to maintain your energy.
5. Use your legs, and never, ever twist. Bending, lifting, and twisting your torso and neck to control a heavy shovelful of snow is a sure way to injure your back, shoulders, or neck. The right way to shovel? “Push the snow away from you,” says Gleiber. “Then if you have to lift it to remove it, scoop up a small amount of snow – not too much, especially if the snow is wet and heavy – and squat or bend at the knees and use your legs – not your back – to lift the shovel.” Don’t toss the snow over your shoulder or to your side. Instead, walk to where you need to dump it.
6. Take breaks. It’s better to shovel several times throughout the storm rather than wait for it to end. Shovel for 10 or 15 minutes, then go inside and take a break. Have some water or hot tea.
7. Dress right. Dress in layers, right up to your neck, and be sure to cover your hands, ears and head. Wear warm, waterproof snow boots with good tread so you will be less likely to slip on the snow.
8. Use snow blowers with care. Never leave a power snow blower unattended when it’s running. Turn off the engine if you need to walk away, and be sure the electrical cord is not in a place where you or others could trip on it. Children under 16 should never operate a snow blower according to the AAOS.
9. Stop at the first sign of trouble. Chest tightness, left arm pain (left or right for women), shortness of breath, low back pain, trouble breathing, even nausea and lightheadedness can be signs of heart trouble and a possible heart attack. Don’t wait for the symptoms to get worse. Stop shoveling immediately and call 911.
10. Have fun! “If you are healthy, snow shoveling can be a great workout, burning about 400 calories per hour and helping you build upper and lower body strength,” says Gleiber. Encourage your children to shovel, too; you’ll lessen your workload, make them feel good about helping you and have fun together appreciating the winter beauty.