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Snow Shovelling

Are you ready for a high-intensity workout? Because that’s what snow shovelling is

There is a reason why this time of year we see stories in the media about the potential health risks of snow shovelling – it is an intense form of exercise.

Take our recent snowfall. With temperatures hovering at or above zero, it made for wet, heavy snow. Moving that mushy stuff is equivalent to a hard-core gym workout with either high-volume weight training or high-intensity cardio. Especially if the plough went by and left that big pile at the end of your driveway.

Shovelling snow does burn as many calories, or more, as a hard workout – about 223 calories in 30 minutes, according to Harvard Medical School’s Calories Burned chart.

That’s because it is a full-body effort that engages your upper body (chest, shoulders, arms, and back), lower body (quads, hamstrings, and glutes), and, of course, your core.

So think twice

Before you jump up from the couch, shove on the big boots and coat and grab a shovel, consider the following:

  • Would you engage in a hard-core workout at the gym from such a cold start without even warming up first?
  • Are you physically even capable of doing such an intense workout, whether or not you are warmed up?

The answer to the first question should of course be no. And if the answer to the second is also no, take a serious minute or two to consider what you are about to do.

In February 2017, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported the findings of a study to confirm the link between snow-shovelling and increased risk of heart attack. The study correlated reported snowfalls with rates of hospital admission or death due to a myocardial infarction (heart attack) by looking at hospital data from Quebec for the years 1981 to 2014.

Deeper the snow, greater the risk

The study found that, the deeper the snow, the more men were admitted for heart attacks. For example, for snowfalls of more than 20 cm, there was a 16 percent increase in hospital admissions for heart problems over days with no snow. For actual fatalities, the increase was 34 per cent. These cases were mostly men, not women. Even people who had no cardiovascular risk factors for heart attack, such as smoking or high blood pressure, faced that higher risk.

No follow-up was done with these thousands of cases to confirm the individual who suffered the heart attack actually had been shovelling snow – maybe they had just been wrestling a snow blower. But that makes the data no less compelling.

The takeaway is that you need to treat snow removal as you would a visit to the gym for any hard-core workout that’s going to leave you gasping, aching, and drenched in sweat.

It’s not just your heart

As chiropractors, we don’t see people with heart problems at our door. Instead, it’s the soft tissue and other spinal injuries that can also arise as a result of failure to prepare and listen to your body.

A separate study in the U.S. found that, of some 195,100 individuals who were treated for snow-shovel related incidents in American emergency rooms during a 17-year period, the most common diagnosis was a soft-tissue injury (54.7 per cent) and the second, an injury to the lower back (34.3 per cent). These statistics don’t include the multitude of others who no doubt walked around for days in pain popping pills without bothering to visit an ER.

How can you avoid becoming a statistic?

  • Pick the right shovel: An ergonomic shovel with a curved handle and an adjustable handle length can minimize how much bending you need to do and ease the strain on both your knees and lower back.
  • Warm up … thoroughly: Just like you would at the gym, with some dynamic stretching, jumping jacks – any of those fun things that get the blood pumping. Because cold, stiff muscles are much more prone to injury.
  • Hydrate: It’s just as important in the winter as it is in the summer. Well-hydrated muscles are also less prone to injury.
  • Dress properly: Wear good boots and dress in layers so you can strip down as the exertion makes you sweaty.
  • Listen to your body: If you are gasping, having chest pains, seeing stars, or have a black haze encroaching on your vision, take a break. If the symptoms persist or get worse, call 911. These are not the only warning signs to watch for – check out Heart and Stroke for more on heart attack symptoms.
  • Stretch again: Just like at the gym, don’t leave worn muscles to tighten up into knots – do some post-workout stretching.
  • And do go to the gym: If you aren’t already, because nothing prepares you better for these challenging chores around the house than hitting the gym on a regular basis. Regular exercise is what keeps us capable of handling all that life dishes out without ending up bedridden in pain, or worse, at the ER.

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