My husband is no spring chicken. Come to think of it, neither am I. And yet, you’ll find us both outside after every single snow storm shoveling and snow blowing.
“Remember to use your knees when you shovel,” he calls to me.
“Remember not to stick your hand into the snow blower chute,” I call back.
Losing his fingers is the least of my concerns. I’m more worried that he’s going to tumble off the porch roof, which needs to be cleared after each big snowfall. He can usually use a roof rake for some of it, but now that the snow is piled sky high, there’s no longer any place to stand on the ground.
We continue to do snow duty ourselves — well, let me be a bit more truthful here — my husband continues to insist that we do it ourselves because he believes it’s good exercise. I won’t argue with him on that point because I do feel invigorated and rather pleased with myself.
But how safe is snow shoveling at our age? (We’re in our 60s.)
I like that it gives me a good cardio workout, but a heart attack is one of the biggest risks. The people at greatest risk are those who rarely exercise and those who already have a heart condition, whether they know it or not.
Moving multiple pounds of snow can put a huge strain on the heart. So can pushing a heavy snow blower. Being outside in the cold can add to the stress on the heart because it can increase blood pressure, interrupt the flow of blood to part of the heart and contribute to the formation of blood clots.
How to protect your heart when you shovel
- Give yourself a break. Take frequent rest breaks during shoveling so you don’t overstress your heart. Pay attention to how your body feels during those breaks.
- Don’t eat a heavy meal prior or soon after shoveling. Eating a large meal can put an extra load on your heart.
- Use a small shovel or consider a snow thrower. The act of lifting heavy snow can raise blood pressure acutely during the lift. It is safer to lift smaller amounts more times than to lug a few huge shovelfuls of snow. When possible, simply push the snow.
- Learn the heart attack warning signs and listen to your body, but remember this: Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out (tell a doctor about your symptoms). Minutes matter! Fast action can save lives — maybe your own. Don’t wait more than five minutes to call 9-1-1.
- Don’t drink alcoholic beverages before or immediately after shoveling. Alcohol may increase a person’s sensation of warmth and may cause them to underestimate the extra strain their body is under in the cold.
- Consult a doctor. If you have a medical condition, don’t exercise on a regular basis or are middle aged or older, meet with your doctor prior to the first anticipated snowfall.
- Be aware of the dangers of hypothermia. Heart failure causes most deaths in hypothermia. To prevent hypothermia, dress in layers of warm clothing, which traps air between layers forming a protective insulation. Wear a hat because much of your body’s heat can be lost through your head.
Common heart attack symptoms (men and women)
- Chest pain or discomfort. Most heart attacks cause discomfort in the center or left side of the chest. It can feel like pressure, squeezing, pain, heartburn or indigestion.
- Upper body discomfort. There can be pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, shoulders, neck, jaw or above the belly button.
- Shortness of breath. Can happen with chest pain or discomfort, but sometimes it’s the only symptom.
Remember: If you or someone else has heart attack symptoms, don’t wait more than five minutes to call 9-1-1.
How to protect your back and shoulders
It’s not only your heart that gets a workout when you’re clearing snow, so do your back and shoulders. If you’ve already got problems, you probably should get someone else to do the shoveling. “Especially in a year like this, when there’s so much snow,” says Mary Kroth-Brunet, a physical therapist who co-owns Back in Motion Physical Therapy. “People get into trouble when there’s a lot of snow. If it’s only a little bit — a few inches — and it’s lighter, they can probably do it safely if they pace themselves and use good body mechanics.”
- When you shovel, try to push the snow instead of lifting it. When you do lift it, use your legs and arms and bend your knees.
- Use an ergonomic shovel that allows you to get close to the end of the shovel where the weight of the snow is.
- Don’t lift heavy loads of snow. Lift smaller, lighter amounts.
- Don’t lift and then throw the snow. You’re more likely to twist your body if you do, which could injure your lower back. Walk to where you want to dump the snow.
- Pace yourself. Plan to shovel for about 20 to 30 minutes at a time. (Light loads.)
- If you’re dealing with a lot of snow, especially heavy snow, you should get someone else to do it for you or use a plow or a snow blower.
Speaking of snow blowers, my number one safety tip is to never stick your hands inside. Ever! Years ago I interviewed a man in his late 70s who lost several fingers when he tried to clear some snow out of his snow blower. “I knew better,” he told me. “But I did it anyway.”
Back to my husband for a minute. You can use the picture of him to see how not to shovel, especially when you’re on the porch roof. Don’t worry. I’ve given him a refresher course.
So … there’ll be more snow this winter. And while it may be true that a young heart can usually handle more exertion, as the snow keeps piling up, even a young back may buckle under the strain of shoveling. If you take it easy and follow all of this wise advice, you should be fine, spring chicken or not.