December 28, 2021

Tips for safe snow shoveling

The blade of a shovel

The weight of an individual snowflake barely registers. But if you multiply that snowflake several trillion times, you have an amount of weight that can seriously overtax even a strong heart and back.

And you've got to get it off your sidewalk and driveway. 

With all that snow shoveling ahead of us, here are some tips to make sure that your pursuit of clean sidewalks and driveways is a safe and successful one.

Prep work

If your heart and muscles aren't used to the strenuous level of activity snow shoveling frequently requires, and even if they are, a little pre-shoveling movement (reaching, bending or leaning) is a smart place to start.

"A prepared body  tends to function more efficiently," explains Jude Sullivan, an exercise physiologist at UW Health Sports Medicine who occasionally works to help rehabilitate patients who've injured themselves shoveling snow. "A few minutes of warm-up before shoveling can go a long way toward preventing muscle injuries, as well as reduce the soreness one may experience hours later."

Don't eat a large meal before you shovel, during digestion blood gets diverted from the heart to the digestive system.  Avoid smoking for one hour before and after shoveling. Smoking elevates your blood pressure and heart rate.

Dress for the part

Wearing a hat and gloves not only protects you from frostbite, but also helps to keep your entire body warm. Dressing in layers can give you the option to remove winter clothing if you end up working up a serious sweat. Wear a scarf or mask that covers your mouth as breathing cold air can cause angina or trigger breathing problems.

Technique is everything

Remember all that stuff about keeping your knees bent and your back straight when lifting boxes?  Well, it turns out it's equally true of lifting snow. Especially heavy, wet snow. 

"It's actually even better if you can push the snow rather than lift it," says Sullivan. "Of course, that gets a lot harder once the snow banks climb over a foot or so, but if you can push those piles, it's much better for your back muscles."

Also be careful of twisting your body sideways as you lift a full shovel - it's easy to throw your back out when you meant to simply throw snow.

"Winter can be very unforgiving," says Sullivan. "The slippery ground and tall snow piles make for interesting choices as to where you put snow and how you do it. Use good judgment, and, if at all possible, plan how and where you're going to move and pile the snow."

Be wise and strategize

Shoveling a small amount of snow early in the snowfall and then going back out again may translate into more time spent shoveling, but it's also a lot less likely to overtax your heart and back.

Pace yourself

This is perhaps the biggest strategy to keep in mind as you attack those snowdrifts. There's no reward for clearing 17 inches of snow in the shortest time possible or beating your neighbor to the clean-sidewalk punch. Staying within your capacity during heavy shoveling can stave off serious cardiovascular issues. One way to tell is if you're able to keep breathing comfortably while working.

Lifting a large amount of heavy snow can elevate blood pressure. It is often safer to use a smaller shovel and make each lift lighter. Exposure to cold air can also cause constriction of the blood vessels and decrease oxygen to the heart. This combined with the increase in heart rate and blood pressure can lead to a potentially fatal heart attack.

Watch for warning signs

Your body is very skilled at letting you know when something's wrong. Recognizing the common signs of heart attack and stroke quickly can save your life.

If you start experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea or lightheadedness, put down the shovel immediately and go back inside. If the new symptoms persist more than 5 minutes it is safest to call 911 for assistance. It can also be helpful to let someone else in the house know you'll be out shoveling, so they can check on you to make sure you're okay.

Keep your hands to yourself

Each year emergency services doctors at University Hospital treat individuals who have seriously injured themselves by putting their hands inside an active snowblower to clear jammed ice and snow.

The advice here is simple and easy to follow: Keep your hands far away from the augur blades and be sure to turn off the snowblower before trying to perform repairs.    

The next major snowfall is a lot closer than you think. Shovel smart and shovel safe.