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Shoveling Snow and Your Health

By Michael Carrera, MSc

You look out the window and see the beauty of the snow as it glistens off the ground and evenly covers the trees.  Shoveling snow is a great workout, but it can be dangerous if the task is not approached with care.

Are There Any Health Benefits to Shoveling Snow?
Like any activity that challenges the large muscle groups of the body in a rhythmic fashion, shoveling is a wonderful form of exercise that raises the heart rate and burns many calories. Shoveling snow is a fun and timely activity that can compliment any exercise program. It also provides variety and an opportunity to participate in a seasonal activity.  People who do not exercise regularly or have cardiovascular risk factors should be careful when shoveling snow.

Shoveling Snow is High-Intensity Exercise
Many people look at a treadmill and are willing to walk on it, but very few want to run on it because of the high intensity aspect of the workout. However, these same people will not think twice about strapping on a pair of boots, putting on a hat and picking up a shovel to start clearing their driveways of snow.  A person who weighs 200 pounds can burn over 400 calories when shoveling heavy snow for 30 minutes.  Shoveling snow, especially heavy snow, is quite demanding on the cardiovascular system and for some people, it is more demanding than running on a treadmill at maximum speed.

Science Says
In 1995, a very interesting study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which examined the demands of shoveling heavy snow on the cardiovascular system.  Ten healthy men of an average age of 32 completed 10 minutes of manual self-paced shoveling and 10 minutes of removing snow with a snow blower.  Heart rate and blood pressure responses were than compared to values that these same men recorded when performing a maximal arm cycling task and a maximal treadmill test.  At the 10- minute mark of shoveling snow manually, the average heart rate of the participants was at approximately 97% of their maximal heart rate.  Blood pressure during shoveling snow manually was significantly greater than during maximal arm cycling and using a snow blower and slightly greater than maximal treadmill testing.

Beyond a doubt, shoveling snow manually poses a tremendous stress on the cardiovascular and muscular systems, but measures can be taken to prepare the body for this strenuous activity.

Treat Shoveling as Exercise
Psychologically, it is difficult to prepare ourselves for movement unless we mentally classify an activity as exercise.  For instance, it is rare to witness someone stretching their legs or lower back or taking a brisk walk throughout the grocery store isle before carrying four heavy bags of groceries to the car.  It is also rare to see anyone warming up before gardening, moving boxes or furniture around the house and/or shoveling snow.

A proper warm-up increases body temperature and blood flow to the working muscles which make the muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints better able to deal with the sudden demand of loading snow onto a shovel.  Also, the process of warming up by walking on the spot, cycling or slowly shoveling lighter loads of snow for five to 10 minutes helps increase heart rate and the heartís ability to react and pump blood as the level of activity increases.


 

Five Tips to Make Snow Removal Fun and Safe

Tip #1:  Warm-Up:  Before lacing your boots up and picking up a shovel, perform a simple walking routine by raising your knees on the spot and pumping your arms.  You can turn this activity into a 50-minute circuit prior to shoveling.  After walking, perform a set of abdominal crunches, wall push-ups and a few stretches for the lower back, legs and shoulders.  After you finish shoveling, war -up by stretching your tired, but well-used muscles back to resting length and enjoy a hot cup of cocoa.

Tip # 2: Use Good Lifting Technique:  Lower back pain or tightness during and after shoveling is normal.  Improper bending of the back, twisting and carrying heavy loads of snow can easily contribute to back injury.  Remember to always lift with your legs and not with your back.  Keep the shovel as close to your body as possible and before lifting the snow from the ground, rest your arm (arm closest to the base of the shovel) on your knee.  This will help deflect some of the spinal forces away from the lower back. As you get going, extend your legs and simply toss the snow in front of you. Avoid twisting to the side.

Tip # 3: Donít Overload the Shovel:  If you have a sturdy shovel that can hold 50 pounds of snow, it doesnít mean that you have to fill it up entirely each time the shovel hits the ground.  Control the amount of snow you lift because the greater the load, the greater the strain on the lower back.  It is better to take an extra 20 minutes to clear the snow rather than lifting loads beyond your bodyís ability.

Tip # 4:  Push the Snow to the Closest End Point: Shoveling snow is not an Olympic event and you do not get points for tossing snow onto a snow bank from a 10 meter distance.  To save your back and to avoid strain on your heart, slightly bend your knees attempt to keep your upper body straight as much as possible and push the snow as close to the destination as possible before picking it up and tossing it onto a snow bank.  Remember, the higher you toss snow, the greater the force is required, so distribute the snow at low heights and avoid creating a high, snowy mountain

Tip # 5: If You Can Afford an Automated Snow Blower, Buy One: A snow blower will help lessen the amount of manual labour required, but it will still allow you to reap the benefits of the activity and help you enjoy the winter outdoors.

Take-Home Message
Shoveling snow manually is a high-intensity activity and can raise blood pressure and heart rate beyond levels achieved while exercising at a maximum speed on a treadmill.  If you have any cardiovascular risk factors or are unsure as to whether you should be shoveling snow, consult your doctor.  Shoveling is hard work, but it can be a fun, safe and beneficial form of physical activity. Don't forget to warm up and stretch at the end of the winter workout.

References

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