By: Angie Horjus, NBC-HWC
As the snowflakes continue to fall (or sometimes blow sideways), it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought of keeping our driveways, front paths and sidewalks clear. When we’re so focused on getting snow out of our way, we need to address shoveling snow just like any other strenuous sport for which we must train our body. We can control our mindset and choose to create a positive winter workout activity out of the task at hand with each fresh flurry. Let’s review my favorite helpful tips for safe snow removal to avoid strained muscles, back pain, or worst of all—a trip to the ER.
Consider any health risks.
After a snowfall, ER rooms and urgent care centers get busy with patients experiencing chest pain or back injuries. If you’re out of shape, have back or other muscle problems, or a heart condition—it can actually be dangerous for you to shovel snow. If you haven’t already, this may be your year to hire a neighbor (teens are always looking for some extra cash) or contact a professional snow removal service to avoid injury or other serious medical issues.
Prep and plan before you step outside.
Feeling in good shape and up to the challenge? Follow these steps for safety before you even head out to “muscle” snow around.
- Stretch your muscles just like you would before a race or workout to prevent injury. Round your back in a standing cat and cow pose to keep the lower lumbar limber.
- Dress in layers to stay warm. You lose a large amount of body heat through your head, so remember to wear a hat.
- Wear warm boots with traction. Good soles can help you with balance, especially on icy paths.
- Wear gloves to prevent blisters and keep your hands warm and dry.
- Use a shovel that is the correct length for your height to avoid any extra strain to the back.
- “Wax” your shovel blade to help snow slide off easier. Spray with a silicone lubricant—even vegetable oil from the kitchen can work well.
Repeat the safety motto.
“Safety first or no one has fun” is a motto I teach in my fitness classes. We begin our moves in good posture, with special attention to the glutes and core muscles. With knowledge of how to do this and having trained our muscles to perform in this mindful fashion, we can enjoy a low-risk and rewarding session. Snow shoveling is yet one more opportunity for multi-planar core fitness. Each time you head outside, remember that shoveling needs to be safe.
- Take breaks to check in with your body. Assess how you’re feeling to stay aware of overuse. Continuous snow shoveling can be hazardous to the health of those not in the best of shape.
- Scoop small amounts of snow at a time so that it won’t be too heavy. Remember to avoid lifting too much weight at once. Skim a few inches off the top to take smaller amounts as needed.
- Switch off between shoveling right-handed and left-handed, so there’s equal opportunity for muscle balance and that you’re working both sides evenly.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water before, during and after. Shoveling can be extremely hard physical work and you need to pace yourself. In the cold, you’re not as likely to feel thirsty, but dehydration can set in quickly. Take your time.
Understand the shoveling plane of motion.
The plane of motion that shoveling has us work through is called the “transverse plane.” Imagine a baseball player swinging at home plate. The core musculature that allows this movement needs to be stable and strong in order for the swing to be powerful and purposeful. Once contact is made between the bat and ball, the goal for an “out of the park” homerun is possible. The angle in which we move our spine and muscles in order to remove snow with a shovel uses this very same plane. If your body is not prepared for stability and strength within this area, there’s an increased risk of injury. One way to get stronger with this plane of motion is with floor to overhead diagonal lifts using a medicine ball.
Make a fist.
Core strength is the crux of our success when it comes to lifting something heavy out and away from our body. Core stability comes first if we train for it, then we can safely work on core strength. Recruiting our “heavy lifters” first, then the other muscles in the correct order, is key to safety. Make a fist with your hand to feel what it’s like to contract a muscle. Contracting the gluteal muscles first ensures a much safer stance, lift or hoist for anything of substantial weight.
Remember to switch on your core from the bottom up—yes, from your glutes. The “forgotten core” means practicing safety first with balance, core stability and core strength.
Learn the benefits of bending.
Besides the obvious benefits of snow removal, such as that clean path to the door or the clear driveway for cars, let’s also talk about the benefits of bending and lifting. Bending down is the easy part—it’s not too much of a challenge to lower ourselves down with the help of gravity. The gift of resistance is waiting once you get down there. The more you focus on this very part of the shoveling task, the better off you’ll be. Get your mind on the muscle you want to contract. Recruiting the correct muscles at the correct time is the key to proper kinetic chain activation. The risk of injury increases on the lift and twist portion when other muscles switch on to compensate for weaker muscles that we actually need to use for this particular move, unless we are prepared. The risk of injury, especially to our middle and low back, decreases when we contract our “heavy lifters.” Here are some quick tips for safe bending and lifting:
- Bend your knees, lift with your glutes first, then your legs. Let them do the bulk of the hard work. Your lower back will thank you for it.
- Lift correctly. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart for balance and bend at the knees rather than at the waist or back. Keep the shovel close to your body rather than extending your arms all the way. Tighten your gluteus maximus, core and abdominal muscles—then lift with your legs as if you are doing a squat.
- Put your chest and upper back into it. Your chest and back are the next largest muscle groups after glutes and legs. Think about the muscles you should use for the task at hand and squeeze them as you lift heavy. Your smaller muscles in the shoulders and arms should not be the main movers and only help a little.
- Maintain good posture. Stand tall with your proper height shovel, soften the knees, draw your navel in and up toward your spine while bending down, scooping, then lifting. If possible, eliminate the twist or keep it to a minimum by tossing the snow more to the front of you. As you lift the snow, keep the shovel blade close to you, to reduce low back strain.
Spring will eventually come to the Mitten as it does every year, but until then—don’t let the record snowfall this winter overwhelm you. Following these tips and safety first, it’s possible to get a low-risk workout with the white stuff that can burn over 200 calories per every half hour. Your core, as well as your car, will thank you.
About the Author: Angela Horjus is among the first National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coaches at Priority Health, and in the US. She approaches her clients and all people with curiosity, respect and a spirit of fun. Angela’s passion for helping others become the best versions of themselves has inspired her current work as a health and wellness coach and throughout her past ventures. Her fitness career of 20 years, including but not limited to group fitness and personal training, cultivated the inspiration to write articles promoting self-improvement and personal growth. Angela’s continuing education is with nationally recognized institutions in health, fitness and wellness specialties. She also has an English degree from Grand Valley State University. Angela is currently working on her American College of Lifestyle Medicine certification.