Snow shoveling safeguards: how to protect your heart…and your back

Snow shoveling safeguards: how to protect your heart…and your back

Snow shoveling, when performed properly, is a great form of moderate physical activity. But for people who aren’t used to exercise, or are using poor technique, shoveling snow can be a major risk for heart attack or other injuries.

Look out for warning signs including uncomfortable chest pain or pressure, pain in the shoulders, neck and arms, light-headedness, significant sweating, nausea, or shortness of breath.

“Statistically, we see a rise in heart attacks and heart-related deaths after significant snowfalls,” says Dr. Craig Ainsworth, director of the Cardiac Care Unit at Hamilton General Hospital. “We can’t say for sure that this is caused by shoveling, but many experts believe it is.

“Repeatedly lifting heavy snow causes your heart rate to increase and blood pressure to rise considerably. For some people, especially those with certain risk factors, this can lead to a heart attack.”

Who is at risk

Those with known heart disease, people who are sedentary, or anyone middle age and older are at higher risk. Ainsworth advises people at risk to ask a friend or neighbour for help, use a smaller shovel to lighten the load or, if possible, invest in a snow blower. If you must shovel, look out for warning signs including uncomfortable chest pain or pressure, pain in the shoulders, neck and arms, light-headedness, significant sweating, nausea, or shortness of breath.

The importance of using correct form

Even if your heart isn’t at risk, shoveling incorrectly can do a number on your body. “Clearing snow early and often is an important part of reducing your risk for injury,” says Janice Jaskolka, an ergonomist at Hamilton Health Sciences. “Snow is lightest right after it falls.”

Jaskolka recommends following these steps while shoveling to reduce strain on your body:

• Warm up and stretch before you begin, especially if you’re shoveling in the early morning
• Place your feet shoulder width apart with one foot close to the shovel. Shift your weight to the front foot.
• Bend your knees and use your large leg muscles to push into the snow. Fill the shovel only halfway.
• Lift using your legs, breathing in and tightening your stomach muscles. Keep your back straight and shift your body weight to the back foot.
• Move your feet to turn your body in the direction of where you’ll be piling the snow.
• Keeping the shovel as close to your body as possible, walk toward the snow pile. Gently toss the snow onto the pile.

Whenever possible, push snow into a pile rather than lifting it, especially when it’s wet or heavy.

“You’re better off taking your time and asking for help from the outset.”

“Clearing a large snowfall can be hard on the body,” says Jaskolka. “If you injure yourself shoveling, it can take a long time to recover. You’re better off taking your time and asking for help from the outset, rather than needing someone to do the whole job for you because you’re out of commission with an injury.”

We’re heading into what’s predicted to be a long and snowy winter season. Do yourself a favour and shovel safe!