This is how to shovel snow safely


Suddenly faced with the job of going outside to take care of the snowy sidewalk and driveway, people then realize how little they have exercised throughout the year.  

"When folks are not aware of their physical shape, this is a big undertaking," says Curt Cunningham, PT, director of the Sinai Rehabilitation Center. "And when you have underlying conditions like heart disease or a prior back injury, that can make it much more hazardous." 

Most common are slip and fall injuries due to the ice and slippery surfaces that result from winter weather. Injuries resulting from slips and falls can be minor, like bruising or spraining an ankle or knee, to major setbacks, like ankle, wrist or hip fractures, head injuries and concussions. Muscle strains, pulls and tears may occur if you overdo the activity with lifting too heavy a load while shoveling or attempting to throw snow too far. If you're not dressed warmly, you run the risk of frostbite or hypothermia.  

"When you go out in the cold, if you don't bundle up, then your capillaries and blood vessels constrict, increasing the amount of pressure that your heart has to generate to get the energy needs met to all of your extremities," Cunningham notes. "When you have that happening along with exercise, it increases the load on your heart, too, because you're increasing the demand for the energy to your muscles." 

If there's a heart condition involved, you're putting yourself at risk for a heart attack. Signs of a heart attack (sometimes termed shoveler's infarction) should not be taken lightly. Shortness of breath, chest pain, radiating pain down one or both arms are signs of a dire circumstance not to be taken lightly. If those occur, cease the activity and call 911. If you have a history of heart disease, contact your primary care physician prior to undertaking a strenuous activity like shoveling, Cunningham suggests. 

Make sure to devote enough time and attention to the task to do it safely. Keep these tips mind. 

*Warm up your muscles in advance. The ideal warmup should include at least 5 minutes of cardio, like walking or jogging in place or on the treadmill, followed by five minutes of light exercise. Spend one minute on each of the following: squat, walking lunges, arm circles, shoulder squeezes and torso rotations.  

*Dress appropriately. Use several layers that can be removed as your body warms up. Make sure to include a knit cap, scarf and waterproof gloves to keep your hands dry and warm. Wear shoes or boots that keep your feet dry and provide traction on the snow and slippery surfaces. 

*Use the right equipment.  There are many fancy shovels in stores. Find one that you can keep close to your body to alleviate stress on the back. Long handles act as levers and make the snow heavier, and shovels with larger trays can scoop too much snow for you to lift. Pay attention to the consistency of the snow - light and fluffy or wet and heavy - to determine the safe amount per shovel load. If shoveling is too much for you physically, hire a neighborhood teenager or invest in a snowblower! 

Devote enough time. There's no need to rush. If you might be late, call ahead. Don't feel the need to finish the job in one outing. Shovel some, take a break to rest and hydrate and return a few hours later to complete the job. If there is significant snowfall predicted, break the job into several sessions so it's not too overwhelming at the end of the storm. 


  • Wear sunscreen. If it's sunny outside when you are shoveling, the sun reflects off of the snow and you could get sunburn. 
  • Listen to your body. Most important of all, pay attention to cues. If you feel like you've had a significant workout or are feeling tired and rundown, stop! Break the area into sections to do at different times. Ask family members and neighbors for help. It's a great opportunity for social time that's been lacking or to meet new neighbors. 
  • Make sure to cool down. Once inside stretch your muscles to decrease the incidence of post-shoveling soreness. 
  • Store extra supplies in your car. It's a good idea to keep extra clothes for layering and blankets in your car in case you get stuck or have to shovel out from work or somewhere other than home. 

"Shoveling snow is real exercise, for sure," Cunningham says. "There are lots of variables to it but you can burn about 500 calories per hour. It's just important to do it safely." 

For over 55 years, the Sinai Rehabilitation Center has provided quality physical medicine and rehabilitative care to the Baltimore community. Sinai Rehabilitation Center was the first rehabilitation facility in Maryland to become part of an acute care hospital. For more rehabilitation information, call 410-601-9355.