Digging Out: 5 Ways to Prepare Your Health to Shovel Snow

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A person shoveling snow

Shoveling snow is strenuous exercise. Just the thought of moving hundreds of pounds of snow and slush is enough to make your legs prickle, to make your arms and shoulders burn, and to make your back tire.

Shoveling snow is such strenuous exercise that, according to Harvard Medical School, an 185-pound person can expect to burn about 266 calories after just a half hour of shoveling. Like any physical activity, shoveling snow poses health risks exacerbated, in part, by weather.

Not to say it could never happen, but chances are slim that you will ever need to shovel snow in 70 degrees and sun. It is more likely to be cold, windy, and wet when you step outdoors. Cold weather—especially when the temperature drops to near or below freezing–forces the heart to work harder to keep the body warm.

The combination of cold temperatures and strenuous exercise can trigger a heart attack. Every year, about 805,000 Americans have a heart attack. More specifically, Robert H. Shmerling, MD writes on the Harvard Health Publishing website that “about 100 people—mostly men —die during or just after shoveling snow each year in the US.”

People who have a medical condition like high blood pressure or a medical history of heart disease are at increased risk for a heart attack when performing strenuous exercise. So, do not just pick up a shovel and start throwing snow. Because shoveling snow is a workout, it is important for people who have any medical concerns to talk to their physician before performing any strenuous exercise in the cold.

Assuming your doctor approves, here are 5 ways to further prepare your health to shovel snow in cold weather.

1) Check the weather, temperature, and wind chill before setting foot outside. Use that information to decide when to shovel and what to wear. If its cold outside (it did just snow after all), you’ll want to dress in layers of loose-fitting clothing. While hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, it can occur at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from submersion in cold water, rain, or sweat. Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm.

2) Use the right tool and the proper technique. Choose a shovel with a small, plastic blade. A shovel with a plastic blade will weigh less than a shovel with a metal blade. At the same time, a shovel with a small blade will limit you to small scoops.

As for the proper technique, stop us if you have heard this before, “lift with your legs, not with your back:”

  • Bend at your knees
  • Choke up on your shovel to keep blade as close to your body as possible
  • Push up with your legs, not the upper body or back, to lift the load and reduce strain on your back
  • Do not twist your body

PRO TIP: Try pushing the snow rather than lifting and throwing heavy shovelfuls.

3) Don’t overdo it. Take frequent breaks to catch your breath and drink water. Shoveling snow is a cardiovascular exercise that involves muscles in your legs, back, core, shoulders, and arms. Pushing a snow blower around is equally hard work. In either case, you need to hydrate as you would before, during, and after a gym workout.

4) Know the signs of hypothermia and frostbite in yourself and in others. Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, is a dangerous condition that can occur when a person is exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Symptoms in adults include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, slurred speech, and drowsiness. Seek immediate medical attention if a person’s temperature is below 95° F.

5) Learn life-saving skills. Bystanders are often the first on the scene after a disaster or in a health or medical emergency. If you notice the symptoms of a heart attack in yourself or someone else, call 9-1-1 immediately.

5 major signs and symptoms of a heart attack in men and women

A heart attack occurs when a part of the heart muscle doesn’t receive enough blood flow. The more time that passes without intervention to restore blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart muscle. A person having a heart attack does not need CPR—but they do need to get to the hospital right away.

Visit cdc.gov/prepyourhealth to learn more ways to prepare your health.


Thanks in advance for your questions and comments on this Public Health Matters post. Please note that the CDC does not give personal medical advice. If you are concerned you have a disease or condition, talk to your doctor. 

Have a question for CDC? CDC-INFO (http://www.cdc.gov/cdc-info/index.html) offers live agents by phone and email to help you find the latest, reliable, and science-based health information on more than 750 health topics.


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8 comments on “Digging Out: 5 Ways to Prepare Your Health to Shovel Snow”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    This article is extremely helpful for anyone that needs to shovel to reduce the risk of falling on ice in the winter. I did not know any of this information and now that I do, I am excited to tell family and friends to prepare them for next winter.

    Living in Buffalo, NY we get a lot of snow! I found this article helpful and interesting. As a nurse, I know exercise is very important, but I never realized how much of a workout shoveling snow is. NYS still has one of the highest incidence of heart attacks and stroke in the United States. It is important to know this because a lot of people still shovel snow here rather than snow-blow or hire someone.

    Although I live in a state where we get maybe one snow fall each year, I was very unaware of the statistics regarding snow shoveling. I think all the tips provided in this post are very helpful for anyone who needs to do some shoveling. I personally enjoyed the information regarding the signs and symptoms, and the differences between what a woman feels and what a man feels. I think that having physician clear you if you suffer from heart disease or hypertension is good advice and may help prevent many heart attacks.

    Very good information for all those shoveling snow this winter. I think that the suggestion that those with medical conditions should first get cleared by their doctor prior to engaging in snow shoveling is a great idea that could end up saving someone’s life. The tips on proper posture, staying hydrated, and taking breaks are also helpful, as some individuals may not get the urge to drink water due to cold weather, but one could get dehydrated and loose electrolytes in the process of exercising. I think that providing individuals with the differences in signs and symptoms of heart attacks between males and females could help save someone’s life!

    This article is very informative and interesting. We do not get much of snow in southside Virginia, but when we do, it is enough to get the shovels out. I have heard that shoveling is a good exercise, but the information I have read here says otherwise. As a nurse, this article gave me insight on what to advise patients, especially those who have heart disease and are elderly, regarding the possible negative effects that it can cause. I do appreciate that the signs of hypothermia and frostbites have been included here. I also like that the cdc.gov/prepyourhealth was sited for more readings.

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Page last reviewed: December 9, 2019
Page last updated: December 9, 2019