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When Shoveling Snow, Protect Your Health

Friday, December 6, 2019

By: Kristin S. Peters, MS, PT, CHT

Each winter, with each snowfall, people injure or reinjure themselves while removing snow from walkways and driveways. Using a sturdy well-balanced shovel, wearing appropriate footwear and outerwear, and taking adequate rest periods are important protective measures. But also, the body must be used as it was designed to be used.

Protect Your Muscles: Your muscles need oxygen and energy to work efficiently. As your body chills, the circulation to the extremities is diminished in favor of your vital organs. Dress warmly in layers to keep the muscles in your arms and legs supplied with oxygen and energy while you work.

Activity will dehydrate your body despite the cold, so drink lots of fluids.

And before you even get outside, prepare those muscles with a warm up of some brief exercise and stretches.

Take frequent breaks or even a more extended rest to avoid fatigue or too much stress your heart.

Position your body to be efficient and effective: Stand tall with abdominal and buttock muscles slightly tensed and your knees unlocked. Imagine a string from your tailbone through the top of your head. Let the “string” pull you upright seemingly lengthening your neck and lifting your rib care.

Keeping your knees flexed, hinge forward at your hips. If a yardstick was placed along your back, it would touch you at the very base of your spine, between your shoulder blades and at the back of your head. 

 It is this lengthened position in which your muscles are in the best ergonomic and most efficient alignment. Frequent self-corrections may be required. Relax about 10% if you feel stiff.

Protect Your Back: If you pinch the muscles along your backbone you will note that they are rather small - some are thin fibers barely an inch long. These muscles work together to control short segments of the spine. They allow mobility, but they also help stabilize the spine to create a strong base from which your arms and legs can move.

If you squeeze the muscles of your arms and thighs it is obvious that these are more powerful muscles than those of the spine. These are the muscles that should be doing the bulk of the work when shoveling.

Keep your knees flexed, your spine aligned and your elbows close to your body. Lift the snow with your legs and arms. Turn with your feet to pivot instead of twisting your spine. If the snow is light, you might just push the snow out of the way.

Remarkably, you will find that your arms and legs are even stronger with the support of a stable spine.

Protect your Hips and Knees: Many of us have one leg stronger or somehow more functional than the other. In protecting a knee, too often people compromise their backs by locking their knees and bending forward at the waist. Instead, use a staggered stance with the “bad” leg forward and the toes pointing in a “V”.

Keeping your spine in good alignment, put your weight on the front leg as you catch up the snow. Shift back on to your stronger leg as you lift the load.

Move your feet and pivot to place the snow aside rather than twisting your body. Try to alternate foot position occasionally if you are able.

Protect your Neck and Shoulders: The neck and shoulder joints are also protected by making good use of the powerful leg muscles. Stabilize your elbows at your side as you lift and don’t let your shoulders creep up towards your ears.

Avoid any explosive movements like throwing the snow. Instead pivot or step towards the bank and deposit the snow. Pushing rather than lifting the snow is especially beneficial in avoiding upper body injury.

If your live in New England, you live with snow and it will need to be cleared. Removal of snow and ice is done for safety and convenience. One should not compromise safety and convenience while shoveling. Treat the body and its complaints with respect and enjoy the winter.

About the Author: Kristin S. Peters, MS,PT, CHT is a physical therapist and certified hand therapist working from the Hamden Office at 9 Washington Avenue. She believes that the only way to beat the snow is to play in it, and enjoys snowshoeing in the woods with her dog.


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