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Slips, Trips, Falls, and Heart Attacks, Oh My: Snow Shoveling Safety Tips

David Ross, MD
ACMC-Litchfield, Family Medicine

Favorite winter activities may include sledding, ice skating, snow mobiling, snow shoeing, snow shoveling…wait, scratch that last one. Unfortunately, for many, shoveling snow is an unavoidable reality of winter.

Did you know that shoveling snow requires about the same energy as speed walking at five miles per hour? Or that the average weight of a shovel loaded with heavy, wet snow is about 16 pounds? It's no wonder a seemingly simple chore can have negative effects on your health.

While clearing the ice and snow off your walkways decreases the risk of falls and injuries, it can still be a dangerous activity. Shoveling puts a strain on your back, increasing your risk of a back injury.

Consider these tips to make shoveling snow as easy on your back as possible:

  • Dress appropriately. Light, layered, water-repellent clothing provides both ventilation and insulation. It is also important to wear the appropriate head coverings, as well as mittens or gloves and thick, warm socks.
  • Warm up your muscles before shoveling, walking for a few minutes or marching in place.
  • Stretch the muscles in your arms and legs. Warm muscles will work more efficiently and be less likely to be injured
  • Consider using an ergonomic shovel. An ergonomic shovel is one that is built with a specially designed handle to provide comfort and support for the hands, wrists, and arms.
  • Stand with your feet about hip width for balance and keep the shovel close to your body.
  • Bend from the knees (not the back) and tighten your stomach muscles as you lift the snow.
  • Make sure you can see what you are shoveling. Watch for ice patches and uneven surfaces. Avoid falls by wearing shoes or boots that have slip-resistant soles.
  • Avoid twisting movements. Turn and dump the snow from your shovel, don't twist and throw.
  • Stop if you feel pain or unusually winded or fatigued.

Shoveling snow puts a tremendous amount of stress on your body and your heart. Cold air, strenuous lifting and high-energy expenditure can cause stress to your cardiovascular system, inducing rhythm disturbances, decreasing oxygen supply to the heart or increasing blood pressure. All of these factors can lead to an increased risk of having a heart attack.

Those most at risk for a heart attack while shoveling snow include:

  • Anyone who has already had a heart attack
  • Individuals with a history of heart disease
  • Individuals leading a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Those with high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels.
  • Smokers

Keep your heart safe while shoveling:

  • If you have a history of heart problems, talk to your doctor before shoveling snow.
  • Avoid caffeine or nicotine before shoveling. These stimulants may increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to constrict, which places extra stress on the heart.
  • Pick the right shovel for you. A smaller blade requires you to lift less snow, which puts less strain on your heart. Shovel slowly to avoid placing a sudden demand on your heart and take breaks as needed.