The hidden risks of snow shoveling

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. 

By Cathleen Kronemer

Mother Nature must have heard some happy carolers singing a rousing chorus of “Let it Snow” during the holidays, because she certainly has responded in abundance!  While we may choose to stay safely tucked under our comforters today, roaring fire keeping us warm as we surf the Internet or cable stations, eventually we will have to head out into the frozen white outdoors…..and yes, that driveway will have to be cleared.

Shoveling snow can be a great form of exercise, if one’s body is already accustomed to vigorous lifting and movement. However, for many adults who may lead a more sedentary lifestyle, such exertion can be dangerous, and in some cases, fatal. Picking up a shovel and moving hundreds of pounds of snow places a tremendous strain on the heart. While a snow blower lessens this load a bit, the risks are still significant. Adding in the temperature factor compounds the problem. Heavy exertion in cold weather has the potential to boost blood pressure, interrupting blood flow to parts of the heart, and therefore increases the possibility of clot formation. When a clot forms inside a coronary artery (a vessel that nourishes the heart), blood flow to a portion of the heart is impeded. Cut off from their supply of oxygen and nutrients, heart muscle cells begin to shut down, and may eventually die, leading to what we know as a heart attack.

Another surprising factor that may contribute to the hazards of snow shoveling is the limited number of hours of daylight we experience at this time of the Winter Solstice. According to Dr. Stephen P. Glasser, Professor of Preventative Medicine at the University of Alabama – Birmingham School of Medicine, “there is a change in the ratio of daylight hours to dark hours, which changes the hormonal balance; and the hormones involved, such as cortisol, can lower the threshold for a cardiovascular event”.

What is the safest way to deal with this winter wonderland? For those who are not regularly active, the most prudent and expedient solution may be to call upon a teenage neighbor to shovel the walkway.  Chances are good that he or she could use the extra money, and for the sake of protecting heart health, it would be money well spent. If you feel you are physically up to the challenge, following these few tips can make the activity just a little bit safer:

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  • Shovel many light loads instead of fewer heavy ones.
  • Avoid flinging snow long distances.
  • Take frequent breaks, heading indoors if you become too cold, or if you feel overheated.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Don’t feel that you need to clear every speck of snow from your property.

In terms of body mechanics, shoveling snow is like any other form of exercise. Proper alignment and posture can save you from an injury.  Keep the following tips in mind:

  • Use leg muscles as much as possible.
  • Keep the back straight while moving from the “squat” to the “upright” position.
  • Engage the shoulder muscles as much as possible.
  • Hold the shovel as close to the upper body as possible.
  • Keep one hand close to the blade of the shovel, for improved leverage.
  • Avoid twisting the upper body as you toss the snow aside.

Even if we take every possible precaution, sometimes the body has its own agenda, and our muscles begin to ache.  Gentle stretching and the use of an ice pack can do wonders to alleviate discomfort, and maintaining good hydration for the remainder of the day will help clear out any toxins that may have been released as a result of the intense workout.  Once you feel rested and rejuvenated, enjoy the beauty of the season with your cup of cocoa in front of that roaring fire!  You deserve it!