snow shovels

Strenuous Shovelling… just say sNOw

You’ve heard the warnings, snow shovelling is bad for you, mkay. But hey, it has to get done. So let’s do this together; I’ll lay some stats and some general info on you, you go forth with your newfound zest for safe shovelling.

First, the boring stuff: according to a study by the Center for Injury Research And Policy (The Research Institute) from 2011 reviewing average numbers of snow related injuries between the year of 1990 and 2006, as many as 11,500 people a year in the US experience snow and snow shovel distress that requires medical attendance. 1,647 of which are fatal incidences.

Now mind you, the range of injuries go from soft tissue injury (e.g. cuts), to bone breaks and… the big offender… cardiac related incidences. The latter of which comprises about 7% of the total of tragic snow related incidences, and although you might think this is a surprisingly low percentage compared to the “hype” you hear each year about the dangers of cardiac arrest and snow shovelling, bear in mind that when a cardiac related incidence happens, it is generally of much more serious consequence than any of the other offenders. Remember the 1,647 fatal incidences above?… those were all cardiac related.

With this in mind, we’ll here focus on two, general topics: one being considerations to take into account for heart health; the other being musculoskeletal considerations: in other words, what can we do to minimise strains, muscle pulls, muscle aches and the like while treating our hearts nicely?

 The Heart Consideration

The 2011 study reveals that men over the age of 55 are twice as likely to suffer from a heart incident in relation to snow shovelling. So the short of it really is, if you are a man around that age, who has not yet looked into the health of your heart, don’t chance it with snow shovelling. Both actual shovelling and pushing a snow blower counts, guys. That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the femmes are good to go on the heart front. Now why is it such a problem, it’s just a little snow, right? And you’ve done it so many times before without having any problems.

I’m really not doubting that you are strong, my friends. In fact, I’m sure you are. I’m sure you walk, and go to the gym, and play some sports, and you lift some weights. When it comes to snow shovelling, though, you are talking about widely different and more uncontrolled circumstances that what you encounter in your fitness routine. One part being the actual movement of your body. You tip your shoulders and head low to fill your shovel with heavy, icy goodness (hello blood pressure changes), the other is that you need to transport said icy goodness to elsewhere. And you do it for a prolonged time in an uncontrolled manner (the weight of the shovel is different for every scoop, you cannot always control the trajectory and so forth – we’ll revisit that in the musculoskeletal section). Factor in your body’s natural tendency for holding one’s breath during the exertion part of the movement, and you have a risk for a heart incident.

It is called the Valsalva Maneuver and it is as such a natural, bodily reaction to the type of exertion, you are asking your body to do. Visualise for a moment the difference between merely holding your breath, and holding your breath while lifting something very heavy. In the latter case, you are asking your body to forcibly exhale, without letting the air out (forced expiratory effort against a closed glottis). With your lungs filled with air and the exhalation blocked, the pressure builds around your heart, effectively pushing in on a muscle which is trying to maintain a outward movement into the thoracic space. As the intrathoracic pressure increases, it gets harder for the heart to maintain its pumping function (not only the heart gets constricted, think of the surrounding arteries and veins, too!). The heart responds in the valsalvic phase by briefly decreasing the heart rate, then increasing it (to counteract the pressure on and around the heart). The heart rate spikes even higher once the pressure is released (you draw breath) because the cardiac system is trying to chase the momentary lack of cardiac output. You now have pressure on your heart, and a heightened heart rate … and you’re are repeating this pattern for every shovel full of snow you transport.

According to cardiologist Barry Franklin, the combination of the strenuous activity, heightened heart rate, and the cold air that might “constrict arteries and decrease blood supply” as well as male prevalence for hypertension (high blood pressure), this makes snow shovelling a dangerous cocktail for the predisposed.

Now, believe you me, I’m not an expert on this – nor am I trying to bore you with all the details of heart functions I could wikipedia my way to. Rather, I’m trying to illustrate the point that stuff is going on with your body and heart that you have very little control over, and you essentially have no way to predict how your body will react to those changes. You’re already cold, possibly dehydrated, and likely fatigued from the strenuous work, and to top it off you’re slithering on icy sidewalks. How ever much you want to will it, you have very little control of the situation.

So what can you do? You can check out this following section on safe(r) snow shovelling technique.


Your Body and Snow Shovelling: the brief insight

Are you doing the following when you shovel snow with your fancy new, high capacity – and yet handheld – snow shovel from Home Depot?:

  • Bending low to fill up your shovel with snow by tipping at the hip and dropping your shoulders and head down towards the ground.
  • Holding your breath when you transfer the snow from the ground.
  • Tossing the full shovel of snow to one side of your body, only.
  • Lifting the shovel up at, or above, knee height to transfer the snow.
  • Going on for hours, ’cause darn it, this has to get done yesterday.

Then you are at risk for: muscle fatigue and injury, sprains and strains (the former happens to your ligaments, the latter to your tendons and/or muscles), back aches and spasms, heart trouble, dehydration, fainting or light-headedness… plus general grumpy and uncool post-shovelling behaviour.

Here are your fixes: 

  1. Warm up your body before hitting the snow session. I recommend especially warming up your shoulders and back (do shoulder rolls backwards and forwards, do controlled spine rotations left/right, lift your arms over head and make your spine long and straight, lean to both right and left to intensify a side stretch).
  2. Use your legs to get your shoulders, arms, and shovel closer to the snow. Sit down in a small squat, keep your spine straight, minimise the amount of hip flex you have (minimal tipping at the hip), and for the love of all things holy BRACE YOUR CORE
  3. Once you have filled your shovel, try to push it out of the way rather than lifting it. When you push, use your legs (push off your feet) BRACE YOUR CORE (darnit), and exhale on exertion.
  4. If you really cannot get rid of the snow by pushing it or sliding it out of the way, make sure you once again find your little squat, BRACE YOUR CORE, lift the shovel up with your legs (not your arms or shoulders or something else weird), keep your spine straight throughout the move, and exhale on exertion. If you are going as far as throwing the snow merrily over your shoulder, make sure you alternate between throwing it over left and right shoulder (or, to the left or right side if you’re not tossing it all the way over your shoulder… which you really shouldn’t. Merrily or not.) If your head is closer to the ground than your shoulders, girrrrrl – you’re doing it wrong.
  5. Take breaks. Drink water (not alcohol – yes I’m looking at your, New Englanders). If you’ve got places to be wicked fast, you know as well as I do that that’s just an excuse. There is no excuse for not doing this safely for you or for your loved ones.
  6. Did I mention BRACE YOUR CORE?



If you are interested in a more in-depth break-down of the percentages and types of injuries counted in the study, please read this: The 2011 Study

For much more on the heart and heart rate under external pressure, take a look here.