"Shoveling snow is similar to weight lifting, which also requires a person to exert a large amount of energy without much movement," advised Family Practice physician Karl Getzinger. "For example, the energy used to shovel snow is similar to that needed to play an active round of singles tennis or to do speed walking at 5 m.p.h."
Researchers have reported an increase in fatal heart attacks among snow shovelers after heavy snowfalls. Four inches of heavy, wet snow on a 50-foot, two-car driveway can weigh as much as 4 tons, which is the equivalent of lifting and throwing 4 sports cars. Most people lift about 16 pounds of snow with each shovel full, and load their shovels about 12 times a minute, which is equal to lifting almost 1 ton of snow every 10 minutes.
Shoveling snow can put extra demands on your heart, especially if you:
- Have cardiovascular disease or other chronic health conditions
- Are over 40 and don't exercise regularly
Not everyone who shovels snow is at risk for having a heart attack. But, people who smoke or have a history of heart trouble, pain, back problems, or other ongoing health concerns need to be very careful. "Check with your doctor first, because snow shoveling is considered to be a very vigorous, demanding activity on your muscular and cardiovascular system," Dr. Getzinger recommended.
If you have a heart problem or chronic health condition, do not shovel snow without a doctor's permission.
Don't smoke, drink alcohol or eat a large meal before shoveling.
Dress warmly in layers and stretch before you start shoveling.
Begin by skimming off heavy snow from the top, then remove the bottom layer.
Keep one hand close to the base of the shovel to balance the weight of the lift and lessen lower back strain. Use a light-weight, push shovel if possible, and avoid overloading.
Try to push the snow when possible and avoid lifting and throwing snow any distance. Use your legs and bend your knees to help with leverage.
Work slowly, shovel for five to seven minutes, then rest for two or three minutes.
Drink water during breaks. Breathing cold air dehydrates the body.
Stop immediately and seek medical care if you experience any shortness of breath, dizziness or chest discomfort.
As with any physical activity, it's a good idea to warm up your muscles before exerting them. Walk around or march in place for a few minutes, then stretch your back, arms and legs. Bending forward, backwards, and to each side will help loosen your back muscles.
"The back is especially vulnerable when a person first wakes up," Dr. Getzinger said. "That's because the muscles have stiffened after lying in bed for an extended period of time. If you're heading out to shovel the driveway before going to work, warm up your lower back muscles first."
Also, be sure to dress properly for the weather. "Wearing layers that can be peeled off, once you work up a sweat, will help you avoid getting overheated," Dr. Getzinger explained. "Gloves, a hat, a scarf to protect your face, and waterproof boots that keep you from slipping, should all be part of your shoveling wardrobe."
Other tips for making shoveling safer:
- Get a good shovel. Look for a lighter-weight shovel that suits your size. A smaller shovel will allow you to scoop up less snow at a time and avoid getting hurt.
-Pace yourself. Start shoveling when snow is newly fallen, since it is lighter than wet, heavily packed snow. Take small breaks and start out slowly to avoid putting too much stress on your heart.
-Push, rather than lift. Try pushing snow away from you, rather than lifting it, to avoid straining or twisting your back.
-Use your legs. If you must lift snow, fill your shovel no more than half full. Bend your knees and lift with your legs, rather than your back. Keep your back straight and avoid throwing snow over your shoulder or to the side, which can cause the back to twist or can injure the shoulders.
-Watch for ice. Look out for ice under the snow or on the ground that can cause you to slip and fall. Black ice, which looks like water but is actually thin ice, can be especially dangerous.
- Listen to your body. If you feel tightness in your chest or have any pain, stop right away and call your doctor. If you're sore after shoveling, take a hot bath or shower, or an over-the-counter pain reliever. If you still don't feel well, see your doctor.
"If you question whether snow shoveling is safe for you, have a medical checkup to make sure you have your doctor's permission," Dr. Getzinger concluded. "A safer option may be to hire someone to shovel your sidewalk, steps and driveway. Finally, a good fitness program that builds strength and endurance throughout the year, can make shoveling snow much easier and prevent injuries or other problems."
Karl Getzinger, M.D., is a Family Practice physician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff. His offices are located at 166 Vine Street in Salem, 330-337-3500; and 356 East Lincoln Way in Lisbon, 330-424-1404.