Snow Shoveling Safety
Shoveling snow is more than a dreaded chore this time of year, it can lead to aches, pains and potentially serious health problems for those with heart disease or asthma.
Reduce your risk of injury shoveling snow this cold season by taking a few precautions and listening to your body.
What Shoveling Snow Does To Your Heart
While shoveling snow can be a great workout, the activity can come with its own risks. What makes shoveling snow so risky?
Shoveling snow or pushing a snow blower can be as strenuous as running at full speed on a treadmill and puts strain on the heart. Cold weather also increases blood pressure and impacts blood flow and risk of blood clots. In fact, a Canadian study found an increased risk of heart attack the day after a large snowfall.
Take breaks as needed and don't work until exhaustion.
"It would be wise to take a break after 20-30 minutes of shoveling. Shoveling snow can be very demanding on the body, and time spent out in the cold can add up quickly,” said Stephanie Ross, nurse practitioner at Franciscan Physician Network Southside Family Medicine Crawfordsville.
The American Heart Association offers practical tips to protect your heart:
- Take frequent rest breaks.
- Shovel smaller amounts more times instead of trying to lug large scoops of snow. Push the snow instead of lifting, when possible.
- Avoid alcohol and heavy meals before and after shoveling.
- Be aware of hypothermia signs, which places additional burden on your heart.
If you have a heart condition or a breathing problem, you should speak with your healthcare provider before trying to shovel snow. (Even if it's not a snowy day, asking before a snow event will put your mind at ease.)
If you have chest pain or trouble breathing with shoveling, stop immediately. Know the heart attack warning signs. If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Fast action could save a life.
How Cold Weather Impacts Asthma
Extreme temperatures can make breathing difficult, whether your lungs are healthy or if you have a lung disease. The cold, dry air can irritate airways, especially for people with asthma, COPD or bronchitis. Individuals with asthma may benefit from using their rescue inhaler 30 minutes prior to shoveling snow if exercise tends to worsen their symptoms.
Dressing Appropriately For Shoveling Snow
Individuals who plan to shovel snow need to dress appropriately for the cold, wet environment.
"Wear layers to be sure you don’t have any exposed areas of skin. The outer layer of clothing should ideally be water proof. Hats, gloves, and snow boots are all necessary," Ross said.
Wearing a scarf to cover your mouth can also be helpful to not directly inhale the cold air, particularly if you have a respiratory problem such as asthma, she said.
Preparing Your Body For Shoveling Snow
Just like any physical endeavor, warming up your body to prepare it for the activity is a safe idea.
"Prior to shoveling it is good to warm the body up then stretch," said Jessica Gillespie, physical therapist at Franciscan Lafayette East. "After shoveling the muscle should be warm and it would be beneficial to stretch. Research shows it is most important to stretch following the activity due to muscles already being warm allowing for more flexibility."
For the most effective warm-up, consider what movements you will naturally do with the activity and make them less intense to begin safely preparing your body for the work.
Some good warm-up exercises include:
- Mimic shoveling without the shovel and snow
- Stretching and moving your arms to gain range of motion
- Get your heart rate up with some brisk walking
- Complete some arm pulses to wake up your shoulders
- Do some lunges or squats to warm up your legs.
Practice Safe Shoveling Techniques
Follow these tips to reduce your risk of injuries while shoveling snow by:
- Choose a comfortably designed, plastic shovel to make the job easier. The lighter plastic, rather than metal, cuts down on the weight of the load, and an ergonomic shovel will cater to the way you move.
- Plan to shovel the snow either in bouts (if it is going to snow for a long time), or right after it has finished snowing when the snow is lighter. This reduces your exposure to cold and allows your body time to recover. "The more fatigued we are, the more we compensate with other areas, increasing the risk for injury," Gillespie said.
- Try to push your load rather than lift and empty and avoid too much weight on your shovel at a time.
- Alternate sides when shoveling so overuse on one side doesn't occur, Gillespie said.
- Always lift with your legs rather than your back and wear a back support if necessary.
Reduce Your Risk Of Falling
Ross noted that you should pay attention to the local weather advisories. "If the weather advisory is telling you to not be on the roads, it is a safe assumption that the sidewalks will be just as slick, and you should not attempt to shovel your walkway until the advisory is lifted," Ross said.
People who are at risk for falling do not need to be shoveling. Patients on blood thinners should exercise caution, since they have a greater risk for bleeding problems if they were to fall.
Ask For Help
Remember there is no shame in asking for help or delegating the task to someone else if you aren't feeling up to it. If you live alone or know you have a condition that may be aggravated by the activity, bring your cell phone out with you. If you start to get overheated or experience shortness of breath, tightness in your chest, or a racing heart stop and head inside for a break. If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.
After You've Finished Shoveling
Post-shoveling safety is important too. Ross said these are some things you should do after you are done shoveling.
"Once you have finished shoveling your walkway, you should remove all of your wet clothing and dry off completely. Hydrate yourself by drinking some water, caffeine does not count," Ross said. "The average person should drink an extra ounce of water for every minute they were sweating. Then take a break and relax."
If you have a strain from shoveling, Gillespie recommends resting the area, using ice to help decrease soreness. Follow up with your physician if pain continues.
By Ariel Anderson
Social Media Specialist