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Preventive Maintenance: Snow shoveling: Be prepared

Snow looks so nice floating through the air, covering the ground with a white blanket. Until it's time to take out the snow shovel! Shoveling can be such a pain. But it doesn't have to be, if you're p...

Snow looks so nice floating through the air, covering the ground with a white blanket. Until it’s time to take out the snow shovel! Shoveling can be such a pain. But it doesn’t have to be, if you’re prepared. First, dress for the weather. Remember that your nose, ears, hands and feet, need extra attention in the cold. So, wear a turtleneck sweater, cap, scarf, face protection, mittens, wool socks and waterproof boots.

Wear your clothes in layers. When you shovel, you’ll sweat, so wear fabrics that will carry the moisture away from your body. If your skin stays moist, you’ll feel cold. Keep your outer layer water-repellant and windproof.

Choose leather-type gloves to get a good grip on your shovel. This will put less pressure on your shoulders and upper arms.

Boots with good treads won’t let you slip, slide, or fall, jolting your neck and back.

Shoveling snow can be good exercise, but it can also be dangerous if you take on more than you should.

Here are some safety tips to help you get a handle on safe shoveling:

If you’re older than 40, or are relatively inactive, be careful. Because shoveling’s a vigorous activity, if you have any known health concerns, get the “okay” from your doctor (especially if you have had heart trouble.)

As before any hard exercise, you should warm up first.

A brisk walk for 10 to 15 minutes would be great, followed by some stretching.

This will get more blood flowing to your muscles and make you more flexible.

Take it slow! Pace yourself. And get out there when the snow has just fallen.

Fresh, powdery snow is easier to move than wet, packed snow, or snow that has frozen into a block of ice!

As much as possible, use the shovel to push the snow out of your way; it’s easier on your back. Use a smaller shovel so you won’t be tempted to overdo it.

Getting the job done in half the time isn’t worth a back injury or heart attack.

But, if you only have a large shovel, just fill it half-full. You don’t have to shovel it all at once. Tackle a bit at a time.

Shift and push the snow around, when you can, with less lifting altogether. Lift large amounts less often. More frequent and smaller amounts are better.

When you have to lift the snow, bend your knees, not your back! This keeps your spine straight and prevents stress and strains. This method lets the larger muscles in your shoulders, abdomen, and thighs carry the burden instead of your back.

Lift snow with the load in front of you and you won’t put so much strain on your lower back. Don’t twist while you’re lifting. Instead, turn by pivoting with your feet and hips.

Try to relax. Keep your shoulders loose by rolling them while you’re working.

Balance your neck and back muscles by stretching opposite from the direction in which you’re shoveling.

So, if you are leaning forward to shovel, then stretch backwards. If shoveling to the left, then stretch to the right.

As well, take the time to rest and stretch every 10 minutes.

Know when you need to take a break. Don’t shovel until you’re exhausted. A safe and comfortable pace for any exercise will increase your actual heart rate to 60 to 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate (MHR).

Your MHR is calculated in this way: 220 minus your age.

If you don’t have your calculator in your pocket, try this less scientific alternative: While you’re still shoveling, you should be able to talk in a normal conversational manner without gasping for air. If you’re out of breath, take a break. If your chest feels tight, stop immediately!

Be realistic. Normal to heavy snow shoveling will tire out your muscles because you’re doing something your body’s not used to. You’ll feel it in your back, shoulders, butt, legs and feet. Usually this pain will start to fade after a couple of days, but to help it along, get some rest and gently stretch the aching muscles. Moist heat packs can also help.

If you sprained or strained a muscle or joint while shoveling, that’s another story. If you’ve strained or sprained, you’ll feel a sharp, localized deep pain right away (within 24 hours.)

Now it’s time to think of “R.I.C.E.” (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). Stretch your injured muscles gently, slowly and frequently throughout the first and second day after the injury, but not to the point of causing sharp pain. If this pain doesn’t go away, or if your legs get a ‘pins and needles’ sensation, you should see a doctor and/or physiotherapist right away.

Finally, when you’ve finished clearing the snow, relax in a hot tub, shower, or sauna. Gently stretch your muscles. And close your eyes. Certainly, don’t look out the window because you won’t want to see the snow that just started piling up on your cleared path! Welcome to the Canadian winter!

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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