With shorter nights and winter coming, many of us can expect the snow to be falling soon (if not already). Winter is a great time to enjoy a different set of outdoor activities such as skiing, snowshoeing, skating and tobogganing. Many of us will also have to spend some time getting out a shovel and digging their car, driveway or sidewalk, out from the snow.
Snow Shovelling as Exercise
Snow shovelling is an excellent physical activity, it works both your upper and lower body. These sorts of activities done regularly can reduce your risk for heart disease and early death. In lab testing, snow shovelling was similar to running on a treadmill.
However, every winter, hospital admissions go up with people experiencing chest pain or heart attacks after snowfalls. One Canadian study reported a 34% increased risk for death in men due to heart attack on days following 20 cm or more of snow. Over a two-year period, 7% of 500 heart events during the winter were attributed to snow shovelling. In the US, approximately 770 people report to the emergency department annually for heart-related events as a result of shovelling the snow, of which nearly 100 result in deaths.
With these findings, one would think that we should avoid snow shovelling at all costs. But it’s not really different from any other vigorous physical activity. When one is active, the working muscles demand more oxygen causing the heart to beat faster and stronger. This stress on the heart results in a small increase in chances of having a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest. However, this risk is extremely small; about 1 death in 36.5 million hours of exercise compared to 1 in 59.4 million hours of sitting. To put this into perspective, if you live to 80, that’s only 700 000 hours.
Snow Shovelling: A Perfect Storm for the Heart?
So if snow shovelling is a good activity, why all the heart attacks? First off, snow shovelling is done in the cold weather. As with any other cold weather activity, your body takes longer to warm-up. Being exposed to cold weather causes our arteries to constrict at a time when we want them to open to allow more blood flow to our working muscles. This can lead to higher blood pressure resulting in greater work for the heart. Indeed, colder weather increases one’s chance for a heart attack or stroke.
The context of snow shovelling is also different from other activities. It’s often done as chore to be completed as fast as possible. One may be in a hurry trying to get the car out to go to work or take the kids to school. This compounds the first point regarding exposure to cold weather in that we do not allow our bodies to warm-up like we would when exercising. We often underestimate the effort required for many chores thinking they’re less intense than a bout of exercise, when they may be just as hard.
However, probably the most crucial factor is the condition of the people doing the snow shovelling. People who have had heart troubles from shovelling tend to already have, or be at risk for, heart disease and are generally inactive. For many of these people, snow shovelling may be the most vigorous activity they do. And if you’re fitness level is low, the stress on the heart due to snow shovelling is higher and the chances of death greater.
But it’s not only heart conditions that send people to the emergency room. The overwhelming majority of the 11 500 injuries in the US per year are the result of muscle strains and tears, and lower back injuries. Considering a shovel of snow may weigh from 10 to 30 pounds with repeated lifting, this can take a toll on one’s body.
Treat Snow Shovelling as You Would any Vigorous Exercise
There are a number of ways in which you can minimize your risk of injury:
- Be regularly active. People who are active have a higher fitness level and are better able to handle the stresses of vigorous activity. While people who don’t exercise have seven times greater chance for sudden cardiac death under exertion.
- Warm up. A warm up will give your heart and blood vessels time to respond to the activity. For a lot of us, shovelling also uses muscles we’re not used to using, so start off slow, and don’t hurry. Otherwise you may be sore the next day.
- Choose the right shovel. There are many different types and lengths. Using a shovel with a smaller blade will reduce the chances of muscle injury. Choose a shovel height that’s right for you. If it’s too short, it will cause you to bend over and strain your back. The diameter of shaft should be comfortable to hold. A shovel with a bent shaft may make lifting easier, but not always.
- Take a break. It can be tempting to want to get all that snow shovelled at once and get warm inside. But it’s important to listen to your body. During large snowfalls, start shovelling early before it accumulates and do smaller amounts during the day. Switching your hands and which side you shovel on will also give working muscles a break.
- Dress in layers. You’ll want to make sure you’re warm enough when you first get out there, but don’t be surprised if you start sweating. By dressing in layers, you can remove some clothes as you warm up. If you’re out near the street at night, wear bright clothing so drivers can see you.
- Use proper technique. First thing is to know your snow. Is it light and fluffy, or wet and soggy? If the latter, a smaller shovel blade is ideal to keep the weight down. Keep your feet planted on the ground, one hand as close to the blade as possible and lift with your legs (don’t bend your back). Keeping the shovel close to your body will make it easier. Don’t twist your back, but move your feet to deposit the snow.
If you have heart disease, be aware of your limitations for activity. Wearing a heart rate monitor while shovelling is a good way to check how much work you’re doing. And if you need help, ask a family member, friend or neighbour. Likewise, if you live near someone who has mobility issues that makes shovelling hard, be a snow angel and dig in.
Shovelling snow is an activity that many of us will have to do at some point each winter, and whether it is us or a loved one doing it, it’s important to recognize that it is more than just a chore, it’s a vigorous activity similar to running and a great way to be active.
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This post was originally published on December 6, 2017 and updated on December 2, 2020.