Back-friendly snow shoveling tips

Now that we have some snow up here, I thought it would be appropriate to bring this snow shoveling article out to remind everyone that shoveling is actually hard physical work, that really should be done after a warmup, and with some caution about form.

Did you know there is an increase in cardiac incidents following snowfalls?

It turns out that shoveling is both frustrating and dangerous.  This is likely due to otherwise sedentary people heading out and suddenly doing intense exertion – that snow can be heavy!

And did you also know that there is an increase in back injuries following snow storms? 

When I heard this, I assumed it was due to the excessive bending.  Interestingly, it might actually be related to the heart incidents.  Or so goes the theory presented by Dr. Stuart McGill, spinal biomechanist at the University of Waterloo:  your back’s greatest protection is the core muscles that brace it, but some of those muscles – notably the obliques – are also involved in breathing.  Because of that, there is a point just after you finish exhaling when these muscles are relaxed.  And when those muscles are relaxed, they are not able to do their other job – supporting your back.  So if you happen to lift a really heavy shovel-full at the end of your exhale – maybe your back is bent and twisted which happens frequently when shoveling – your back is going to take the full load with no support.  And that can result in a sore back.

As it turns out, you can turn this crisis into an opportunity (“cropportunity!” as Homer would say).  Why not turn your shoveling “job” into a safe and fun workout?  Yes, I did say fun and workout in the same breath. Not convinced? Think of it this way:  Shovel your driveway my way you’ll be less likely to hurt yourself, and you’ll be more fit when you’re done. 

So what kind of workout can you get shoveling?  Think of it as a two-part workout:  an arm plus core workout and a leg workout. 

Warm-up first!

Before heading out, start with a warm-up in the house.  It doesn’t have to be long, but make sure you get some movement in your legs, your hips, and thoracic spine area. I have two warmup options for you, each one takes between 5 and 10 minutes:

The ski dynamic warmup. It’s true that snow shoveling is not skiing. Not even close! But a good ski warmup will serve you well for snow shoveling. Here’s the one I recommend:

The snow shoveling workout

There are two parts to the shoveling video, the Lift and Toss and the Shovel Scoop Interval. Use each as appropriate, depending on the type of snow and length of driveway. Read below the segment below the video for a little extra guidance.

The Lift and Toss:

Try 10 reps on one side and then 10 on the other and then take a little break.  As it says in the video – don’t twist your back, and don’t forget to engage that core to prevent the relaxed breathing muscles from compromising your back!

Shovel Scoop Intervals:

With these, don’t run through the Shovel Scoop Intervals unless you are:
- wearing boots with a great grip;
- you know there’s no ice underneath;
- You know there is nothing the shovel will catch on; and
- you are in excellent physical condition.

There is no shame in walking to push the scoop shovel! It is still a good workout. Once you unload the snow, walk back to the starting point so that you have the energy to do another line. If you have to unload the shovel to the side, remember the straight back lesson from the Lift and Toss, and as much as possible, alternate sides. If you are still breathing heavily when you get back for another line, rest a bit longer. As the winter progresses, you should find that you need less rest. But for the first few snowfalls, don’t be the hero – respect both your body and the snow.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa. Visit www.customstrength.com for information about hiring her for your fitness and sports performance needs.

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