by Point Performance’s Dr. Haim Hechtman, DPT
There is one important snow preparation that Washingtonians all too often ignore. Judging from the number of people who show up at Point Performance’s physical therapy practice after a heavy snow with aching or injured backs, it’s easy to conclude that people don’t prepare adequately to shovel snow, and stay safe while they are doing it. Not only that, many put themselves at risk for heart attack during snow shoveling.
Ironic, considering the Washington area never fails to make elaborate preparations for snow otherwise— the first forecast of a flake will send hoards of us to the supermarket to stock up on paper products and milk, and to the gas station to top off our tanks. Schools close, the Metro stops running, and non-essential government employees are grateful to be, well, non-essential.
When it comes to shoveling snow, it’s important to be prepared and safe.
Consider this: Shoveling snow can use the same amount of energy as an active round of singles tennis or speed walking at 5 mph. Not convinced? Take a look at these numbers:
- The average shovel is loaded with sixteen pounds of snow
- If you are a good shoveler and lift twelve shovels per minute, that’s almost 200 pounds to lift each minute, or 2,000 pounds in ten minutes
Based on my training and years of practice as a physical therapist, I can tell you that you should do more than throw on your boots, hat and jacket to clear the driveway. Here are some important tips that will help you to stay healthy and safe in the aftermath of the next storm:
- Warm up before you head out. Do light exercises and gentle stretching for five to ten minutes before you start to shovel. You are less likely to pull a warm muscle than a cold one.
- Be aware that you are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke just after you get up because of the morning “surge” in blood pressure. Time your efforts accordingly.
- Pick the right tool. Not all body types require the same shovel but a shovel that keeps your back straight while lifting is key. A taller person will benefit from a longer shovel or an “ergonomic” fit while someone shorter may want to use a shorter shovel.
- Prep the shovel. Visit the kitchen before you head outside and spray the shovel with PAM or other spray oil before you start. This will help the snow glide off and keep the shovel as light as possible.
- Push the snow. As often as possible, push snow out of the way, rather than lifting it. When you do need to lift, squat with your legs shoulder width apart, knees bent and back straight so you lift with your legs and not your back.
- Avoid twisting. Let me say that again, because this is so important. Avoid twisting! Walk the snow out of the way holding your abdominals tight. If you throw the snow, you may throw out your back along with it!
- Go slow and take plenty of breaks. This is one job you don’t want to rush.
In case you do get into trouble, know the signs of a heart attack or stroke:
- Chest discomfort: pain, pressure, squeezing, or fullness in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back
- Discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
- Face drooping: one side of the face droops or can become numb. Ask someone to smile, to see if the smile is uneven.
- Weakness or numbness in one of the arms. Ask someone to lift their arm above their head.
- Slurred speech or hard time being understood
Call 911 if someone shows any of these symptoms, even if they go away. Time matters and the faster you get professional help, the more likely you are to avoid permanent damage.