Snow is a magical substance. You can use these flakes to build an igloo, whip up a batch of candy, or go sledding. But the frozen specks also bring a more onerous activity: shoveling sidewalks, walkways, and driveways. This seemingly endless task isn’t just annoying—it can also be deadly. It’s safe to say that no one ever wants to have a heart attack, but with COVID-19 cases causing record hospitalizations in many parts of the country, now would be a particularly terrible time to have a cardiac scare or be rushed to urgent care with a nasty pull or sprain.
That said, you can greatly minimize your risk by reducing the strain of this vigorous activity. Follow these tips to shovel snow without hurting yourself.
Pick the right moment to start
First, you have to decide when to start shoveling.
It’s usually best to wait until all the snow has fallen before getting out there with your shovel, says physical therapist Nicholas Licameli. That way, you don’t have to do the job twice.
This equation changes if snow is falling heavily for a full day or more, which adds up to a harrowing shoveling experience once the storm is done. In these instances, you can reduce your workload by going out once in the middle of the day. If you do an initial pass of your sidewalks and driveway earlier, you’ll have a smaller pile to tackle once the storm passes.
Choose the right shovel
As with many projects, selecting the right tool will make your task easier. In this case, that means shopping for a good shovel.
“I like the shovels that have the natural curve to them,” says Licameli. With that S-shape, you don’t have to bend over as far to lift snow off the ground.
The ideal shovel length will vary greatly person to person, depending on your height. When in doubt, go long. Again, this will help prevent excessive bending. If the handle seems too long, you can always adjust your grip to use the shovel more comfortably.
Another shovel trait that Licameli recommends: a sharp, metal edge on the very end. This will help you slice through thick snow and icy layers without exerting too much force. This will help you save energy and prevent injury.
Shoveling snow might not seem as athletic as running a marathon, but it takes a surprisingly high toll on your heart. It’s hard work, and the particular motions and circumstances involved create a perfect storm for raising your blood pressure.
If you have an existing heart condition, you shouldn’t shovel snow without clearance from your doctor. But even if you’ve never had problems with your ticker, don’t make the mistake of jumping right in to hoisting large shovels of snow off the ground.
Instead, treat snow shoveling like you would any other form of vigorous exercise: start with a warm-up and end with a cool-down. Try one of these dynamic warm-ups while you’re still inside, then make sure you slowly ramp up your shoveling pace once you get to work. When you’re all done, take a few minutes to walk around and stretch.
Assume the proper stance
It’s important to shovel in the right position if you want to avoid injuries. First, make sure you have a “neutral spine,” says Licameli. This means your head, neck, mid- and lower back, and tailbone should all more or less line up with one another. Avoid excessive arching of your lower back or stooping your upper back and shoulders. Keep your spin aligned even when you go to scoop up some frozen fluff: Instead of bending your back, try to hinge at your hips and bend your knees.
When you move to take a shovel, back alignment isn’t your only concern. You should also try to engage all your core muscles, which will support your spine. To do so, brace your diaphragm and take a nice, deep breath. Pull up on your pelvic floor, with the same motion you would use when “holding in gas or urine,” says Licameli. Then, “tighten up the midsection—like putting on a tight belt after Thanksgiving dinner.” Combining all these actions will “make your spine the most stable that it could be.”
Licameli likens the spine to a neat stack of toilet paper. Tightening and engaging those core muscles is equivalent to wrapping your TP tower with duct tape. That will make it more stable and protect vertebrae from getting twisted out of line.
Clear one bit at a time
Wet, heavy snow can weigh quite a lot, so it’s important not to strain yourself by attempting to lift too much at once. If there’s a lot of snow on the ground, remove it layer by layer instead of trying to go down to the ground immediately.
Scoop a layer of snow and then use a forward motion to toss it diagonally off to the side of the path you are trying to clear. Alternatively, turn your whole body to toss it into a pile. Don’t twist your back to toss the snow away or fling it over your shoulder, warns Licameli: that can can cause back pain or injury.
It’s also important to switch up your stance every so often. If you’re leading with your left arm, that means you’re pushing with the right side of your body, which can quickly tire out that half. Licameli recommends switching sides every 10 shovels or so. There’s not much else to do while you’re shoveling snow, so you might as well keep count!
Take plenty of breaks
Instead of trying to power through all the snow shoveling at once, you should take regular breaks. The cold tends to numb us, says Licameli, so we don’t notice how tired or dehydrated we get in the same way we might in the heat of the summer. Taking intervals to rest and drink water (or hot cocoa) can prevent those symptoms from getting serious.
Going slow, taking breaks, and warming up periodically can also help prevent your risk of a heart attack. It’s easy to forget that snow shoveling is serious exercise, and if you have heart problems or are used to a more sedentary lifestyle, the exertion can cause quite a shock to your system.
Consider a snow blower
Even with all the best practices, shoveling is a real chore. “What’s easier is to either get a snow blower or move to Florida,” says Licameli.
Joking aside, a snow blower is more of an investment than a new shovel, so spend some time thinking about whether you really get enough snow to warrant the machinery. While price varies greatly by model, a snow blower can easily cost several hundred dollars.
Even if you do opt for a snow blower, using it requires the same neutral spine and core-stabilizing exercises that shoveling does, Licameli says. Keep your spine straight and the core engaged, take breaks, drink water, and take it one pass at a time. After all, you’re moving around a heavy piece of machinery. This can still be physically taxing, especially if you have to swing it around or it gets stuck in a deep patch of snow.
What it really comes down to is this: Treat your spine like a duct-taped stack of toilet paper. It sounds silly, but with that core protection, you’ll be ready for whatever old man winter throws your way.
This article was originally published on December 16, 2018. It has been updated.