Shoveled any snow lately? Getting ready for the next storm? Did you know that shoveling can be hazardous to your health? In the USA about 1200 people die each year from a cardiac event during or after a snowstorm. It is thought that many of these deaths are caused by shoveling snow. As a neurosurgeon I am not called for heart attacks, unless they lead to strokes, and they can. What I do see are a lot of back injuries. I also see head injuries due to falls.
Shoveling snow is a workout. Done right, it can be a great one. The trick is to have the right attitude, preparation and technique.
Yes, shoveling is a chore. But, look at it as an opportunity to get outside and breathe some fresh air. You will also burn a few calories, and for many of us, that is a good thing.
Perhaps you should not be shoveling. If you have had a heart attack, have heart or lung disease, have had a serious back injury, or have some other chronic health condition, speak to your doctor first. Even better, get someone to shovel for you. If you rarely exercise, speak to your doctor before shoveling just like you would before starting a new exercise regimen. Moving heavy snow can significantly elevate your blood pressure. You don't want to be one of those 1200 deaths.
I have my morning cup of coffee, snow or no snow. One cup is probably okay for most of us but in general avoid caffeine just before shoveling. Also, do not eat a heavy meal or smoke. All of these things can add stress to your heart. (Of course, it is never healthy to smoke).
Stretch first or go for a short 1 or 2 minute walk. This will warm up your back, arms and legs helping to decrease your risk of muscle sprains and strains and other injuries. Your body will work more efficiently. The shoveling will seem a bit easier, you will finish sooner, and you will experience less soreness later.
Start shoveling dressed in layers which trap air between them. This prevents hypothermia. Wear waterproof, insulated boots, gloves that allow you to grip the shovel, and a hat that covers your ears. Remove the layers as you work up a sweat to avoid overheating.
Drink fluids. Shoveling can cause you to become dehydrated. Take a water bottle outside with you. It will remind you to take a drink, (of water!), periodically and you won't have to go far to get it.
Shovel correctly to avoid back injury. Hold the shovel with your hands at least 12 inches apart. Your leverage will be greater decreasing the strain on your back. Whenever possible push the snow away from you. Avoid lifting it, which puts greater stress on your back. When you have to lift the snow plant your feet hip distance apart. Keep the shovel close to your body and bend your knees slightly. Use your thigh muscles to push and lift. Do not bend your waist. Support your back as you lift by tightening your abdominal muscles. Toss the snow in front of you. If this is not possible, turn to face the direction you are throwing the snow. Don't twist and avoid throwing the snow over your shoulder. Pace yourself. Take breaks to stretch your back and limbs.
Plant both feet solidly on the same level. Wear boots with a tread. Avoid standing on ice.
If a heavy snowstorm is starting and it is not dangerous consider going outside to shovel those first inches. You will have to go out again later, but each time it will be faster and easier than waiting for the final accumulation.
Choose the shovel that is right for you. Use a plastic shovel. It is lighter than a metal one. Also, use a smaller blade. Wet snow can be heavy. A smaller blade will pick up less snow but this puts less strain on your body and reduces your risk of injury. Make sure the handle is the right length for you. With your knees slightly bent and your back straight or bent up to 10 degrees you should be able to hold the shovel comfortably as you place it into the snow. Many recommend a curved handle. Your back will be straighter while shoveling. Spray a silicone lubricant on the shovel blade. It prevents the snow from sticking. Instead it will slide off.
Always let someone else at home know you will be out shoveling. Stop immediately and go inside if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, weak, or short of breath. If those symptoms persist or if you have chest pain, call an ambulance.
And what about back pain? In a recent study of snow shovel related emergency room visits, the lower back was the most frequently injured part of the body. Most of the time the injury was muscular. Less common were slip and fall accidents. These can result in fractures. It is also possible to herniate a disc in the lower back. So, be careful and follow these tips. If you do experience back pain, make an appointment with your doctor.
Interested in decreasing your risk of stroke, Alzheimer's, and other forms of dementia? There are "10 Steps" you can start taking today. And where does snow shoveling fit in? Steps 2 -- Exercise, 8 -- Protect Your Head, and 9 -- Manage Your Health. Get your copy of the "10 Steps" and let me know where you think it fits.
Every day... Say No To Stroke!