Digging Out: 5 Ways to Prepare Your Health to Shovel SnowPosted on by
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.
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.
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