How to circumvent shoveling health risks

(Katharine Schroeder photo)

I stepped outside, shovel in hand, and eyed my very snow-worthy Jeep.

But I was overconfident.

As I began to dig into the white stuff, I soon realized I had underestimated the 10 or 12 feet I had to remove in order to actually access my car. Being the overeager newbie reporter that I am, I had unwittingly offered to take photos of the freshly fallen snow, aptly timed as the first task of my morning — or so I thought.

This wasn’t the light, powdery stuff that had covered the area in late January, I soon realized. This was, as one National Weather Service meteorologist described it to the newspaper, “heart-attack snow.” She wasn’t joking. And that’s just one of several health risks that come with shoveling.

Health experts often warn of an increase in heart attacks among snow shovelers — and for good reason.

“Snow shoveling is a cardiovascular activity, and it’s not low-impact,” said Dr. Alexis Hugelmeyer, family physician with The Suah Center in Riverhead. “Those who lead very inactive lifestyles need to be cautious.”

According to a Surgeon General’s report on physical activity and health, a 170-pound person shoveling for 30 minutes will burn about 250 calories, maybe more.

Not only is one’s body challenged by a quick increase in heart rate and blood pressure from moving about, but added stress from the cold restricts blood vessels and causes airways to contract – which can make it difficult to breathe properly, especially for those with asthma, Dr. Hugelmeyer said.

To minimize the stresses of snow removal, she recommends heading out to shovel when the snow has freshly fallen and tends to be at its lightest and easier to move. This will also cause less stress to the back, helping to avoid injury.

The nonprofit National Safety Council also warns of potential back injuries among those unaccustomed to moving heavy objects.

To lift properly, stand with your feet about hip-width apart for balance and keep the shovel close to the body. Be sure to bend from the knees — not from the back — and use the torso and thigh muscles to lift the snow.

If you need to move the snow to one side or the other, reposition your feet to face the direction the snow will be going, rather than twisting at the hip, the experts suggest.

Most important, do not overexert yourself.

If you grow short of breath or feel tightness in the chest — stop shoveling and head inside, Dr. Hugelmeyer said, adding that it’s a good idea to keep a cellphone handy while you’re outside and, if you have asthma, an inhaler as well.

But before heading out, it’s vital that people protect themselves by dressing in layers — at least two and, if there’s moisture in the air, a waterproof third layer for added security. Synthetic fabrics that draw moisture away from the skin will help keep you warm. Wearing organic materials, such as cotton, can actually counteract this layer, keeping moisture on the skin, which may make you colder, Dr. Hugelmeyer said.

Next comes the insulation, a layer of wool or down to keep your body’s heat from leaving, and then the waterproofer, keeping the necessary layers dry.

“You’re trying to maintain that 98.2-degree temperature,” she said, adding that the proper gear plays a big role in how long one can stay outdoors safely.

“Frostbite can happen in as little as 30 minutes,” Dr. Hugelmeyer said, adding that the areas of the body with the smallest blood vessels (which constrict in cool temperatures) — the toes, fingers, nose and ears — are usually the first to show signs.

“A lot of people may not even realize it happening,” she said, cautioning that tingling, numbness or waxy, shiny skin are common first symptoms and a signal that it’s time to head indoors.

It’s also important to rehydrate yourself after any outdoor activity, she said, since the shoveling and the added layers usually lead to perspiration.

Caption: Shoveling heavy, wet snow can be a challenge. (Katharine Schroeder photo)

Editor’s note: This was originally published in January of 2015.