January 4, 2023 – The winter stolstice passed on December 21, ushering in a season of significant snow that will see thousands of Americans shoveling out their driveways in the months to come.
But snow shoveling can be dangerous: A study found to be responsible for 11,500 serious injuries and nearly 100 deaths annually. So before you reach for the shovel or even the snow blower, understand the risks and take precautions.
How hard is shoveling?
Snow shoveling puts a tremendous strain on the heart, says Barry Franklin, PhD, a professor of internal medicine at Oakland University’s William Beaumont School of Medicine in Royal Oak, MI, who became interested in the health effects of snow shoveling early on in his career Friends died of heart disease after shoveling snow.
A study The study, conducted by Franklin and his colleagues, focused on 10 healthy men aged 35 or younger who underwent an exercise test to assess their heart rate, blood pressure and fitness level at maximum exertion. On another day, the same men shoveled snow for 10 minutes while wearing an electrocardiogram (ECG) monitor, a blood pressure monitor and an energy expenditure measuring device.
“We found that heart rate and blood pressure while shoveling snow were equal to or higher than during maximum testing on the treadmill,” says Franklin. “Combine that with cold temperatures, which decrease blood flow to the heart and increase blood pressure, and you put a tremendous strain on the heart.”
Each scoop of wet snow weighed about 16 pounds, and the men filled their scoops on average every 5 seconds during the 10-minute period.
“That means almost 2,000 pounds were moved in the 10 minutes [or] the equivalent weight of a midsize car,” says Franklin.
Aside from the stress of heavy lifting, there are many reasons that make shoveling so heartbreaking.
“Usually when you shovel you stand still and your arms do all the work. Blood pools in your lower extremities because your legs aren’t moving, so there’s insufficient blood flow back to the heart when the heart desperately needs that oxygen-rich blood,” explains Franklin.
Breathing in cold air causes blood vessels to constrict, which increases blood pressure and restricts blood flow.
“When you take all of these factors together and add underlying heart disease, you have a ‘perfect storm’ for catastrophic events,” says Franklin.
Who is at risk?
Although we usually think of exercise as good for the heart, physical exertion is a “double-edged sword,” notes Franklin, the books’ co-author Take a load off your heart and Prevent, stop and reverse heart disease.
“Exercise can protect your heart if you’re physically active on a regular basis,” he says. But vigorous, strenuous exercise can trigger a heart attack or sudden cardiac death, especially if you’re out of shape.
And even if you’re in good shape, shoveling can still put you at risk, although your risk is probably less, he notes. One study suggests that up to 85% of US adults over 50 have plaques in their arteries, even if they have no symptoms. Extreme exertion can cause plaque to rupture and lead to a heart attack.
People at highest risk for shovel-related cardiac events include people over age 45, people with hidden heart disease or known heart problems, people who are typically inactive, overweight or obese, and people who have one or more cardiac risk factors, such as z like cigarette smoking, high cholesterol or diabetes, says Franklin.
Protect your back
Ken Hansraj, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Poughkeepsie, NY, says show shoveling affects not only the heart but also the back.
“Lifting and carrying snow puts a strain on your back, so pushing or sweeping is better than lifting,” says Hansraj. “But if something needs to be lifted, use a lightweight, ergonomic shovel that has a bend in the middle.”
Don’t lift too much at once, warns Hansraj, the book’s author Take Care of Your Back: Nine Proven Strategies to Reduce Your Neck and Back Pain Without Surgery. Instead, take “small bites,” he suggests.
He advises people to “push aside small pieces that are light and simple. You tire more quickly when you lift heavier loads, and the strain on your back and heart increases. That may seem slower, but before you know it you’re done.” And be aware of the “quality of the snow”. Wet snow weighs more than dry snow, which is more like baby powder and fun to play with.”
Pace yourself by breaking the task into smaller chunks.
“You can divide your driveway into areas – the front of the driveway, the east side, the west side and the back. Take your time clearing regions and rest between regions,” suggests Hansraj.
Before, during and after
Hansraj recommends warming up inside before heading outside to shovel.
“Strengthen your neck, back, hamstrings, quadriceps, and hamstrings, pull your elbows in front of your chest, and straighten your shoulders.” He recommends 10 squats, 10 push-ups, and 30-second planks.
The reason for these preliminary exercises is to “prepare your ‘shock absorbers’ – your hamstrings and your innermost and outer core,” he explains. “For example, there comes a point when you squat when you’re shoveling and your thighs are busy, and you want them and not your back to take the strain.”
He also recommends taking deep abdominal breaths before going outside and staying aware of your breathing while you’re shoveling.
“If your breathing changes and becomes labored, stop shoveling,” he says.
When lifting snow, do so carefully and mind your posture. Keep your head erect, look up, expand your chest, keep your shoulders behind you, contract your abs and tuck in your pelvis.
“The farther the shovel is from your body, the more pressure the weight puts on your spine, so stand close to the shovel,” says Hansraj. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart for a strong base of support and squat, bending your knees while keeping your back straight.
Listen to your body. If you get tired, short of breath, or if you feel changes in your heart rhythm, stop paddling. Stop if you feel your neck muscles or lower back starting to hurt, or if you have near misses while walking steps or placing the snow.
Hansraj suggests long, hot showers after shoveling. You might want to do a few more stretches in the shower. If you have mild muscle pain, you can take an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or use an over-the-counter cream.
But if you have chest pain or pain that goes down to your jaw or arms, or have any kind of trouble breathing, seek medical help as these could be signs of a heart attack.
Additional safety tips
Snow blowers also have risks
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has additional instructions for snow blower users.
Franklin suggests putting a label on your shovel or snowblower like “Warning: Using this tool to clear snow can be hazardous to your health!”
“It will remind you to take proper precautions before you start clearing snow,” he says. And if you’re an older adult, sedentary, or have health conditions, “get a neighborhood kid to clear your snow, or hire a snow plow service.”