Are you shovelling the right way? Experts on how to avoid injury and even turn it into a workout

Move that snow safely, and maybe even get in shape while you're at it.

Move that snow safely, and maybe even get in shape while you're at it

It's a good thing if you can still hear your father's voice in your head yelling "Lift with your legs!" — he wasn't wrong. The legs are the largest muscles in the body, so they should bear most of the load when shovelling. (iStock/Getty Images)

December and January are behind us, but the cold weather definitely isn't. The forecast in many places across the country still calls for snow, snow and likely … more snow.

If your driveway, patio or deck is covered in the white stuff then, at best, clearing it can be minor inconvenience. At worst — if you're reckless, rushed or unprepared — shovelling snow can be a minefield of much more serious risks.

Improper shovelling can lead to a slew of injuries, accidents and, yes, even death — heart attacks have been known to happen even the day after shovelling. But, if you come at it the right way, it can also be enjoyable, efficient and a great form of exercise.

While we'd all like to be a natural snow-shovelling sensei, most of us have a lot to learn about the ways of the shovel. So we talked packing powder with some health and fitness experts to figure out the best and safest ways to clear snow.

Gear up

Start with your clothing. "Wear boots with non-slip treads," says Dr. Tim Rindlisbacher, a sports medicine physician at Toronto's Cleveland Clinic, adding that you can give any shoe or boot some grip by getting "crampon" traction devices to wear over them.

Dr. Michael Koehle, a professor of sport and exercise medicine at The University of British Columbia, suggests layering clothing for warmth, "since cold muscles are more likely to get injured," then removing layers as your body heats up.

If your hands get cold easily, opt for mittens, adds Brent Bishop, fitness expert and founder of Think Fitness Studios in Toronto. "Mittens are always a better choice than gloves, as they don't separate your fingers," he explains.

Lastly, Michael Boni, a professor at York University's school of kinesiology and health science, advises wearing a face mask. "Cold air makes it harder to breathe, which adds extra stress on the body," he says. He also recommends wearing a hat to prevent 50 per cent of your body heat escaping from your head.

As for your shovel, one with an ergonomic shaft is best, says Dr. Rindlisbacher, "since they bring the load slightly closer to your body." The shovel should also be long enough to "allow for a slight bend in your knees," says Boni. A plastic shovel blade, as opposed to a metal one, will also mean lighter lifts, putting less stress on your spine.   

Warm up

Since you're going out into the cold, a general warm-up beforehand is a great way to make sure your body is primed to plow, reducing the risk of injury. Boni says a quick five to 10 minute walk or cycle on a stationary bike can often do the trick.

Another option is activating the muscles you're about to use by performing the motions of shovelling. Dr. Koehle suggests a combination of arm swings and rotations for 60 seconds, followed by 10 bodyweight squats, then 30 seconds of upper-body rotations from side to side.

The technique

It's a good thing if you can still hear your father's voice in your head yelling "Lift with your legs!" — he wasn't wrong. The legs are the largest muscles in the body, so they should bear most of the load when shovelling.

To do this, keep the handle of the shovel close to your body. "Bend at the knees and hips, while keeping your spine straight — never hunch over," says Bishop.

Bending the spine, especially when lifting, puts undue pressure on the spine and its discs, increasing the chances of strain or injury. To keep your spine braced, contract your core (think of the muscles you flex while coughing or laughing) and hold it upright as much as possible.

While lifting, "keep one hand close to the base of the shovel," says Boni. And when throwing, "step in the direction you're throwing, to prevent back-twisting and backache." But instead of lifting and throwing, wherever possible, "push snow using both hands and your whole body," says Boni,  so as not to strain your shoulders and wrists.

Stretching it

Post-shovelling, Boni advises taking "five minutes to walk around and allow your blood flow to return to normal and avoid feeling dizzy." Now that the muscles are thoroughly warmed, it's also a good idea to stretch.

Boni recommends, first, "gently bending your lower spine backward for two sets of 15 repetitions," then "clasping your hands behind your back to stretch your upper back and arms, and [holding] that position for 30 seconds."

Bishop also suggests stretching your hamstrings and hip flexors, to prevent these muscles from becoming too tight during recovery. You can even do some of these stretches intermittently during your shovelling, he says, if you feel like your body needs a break.

What to watch out for

"[Some] of the most common injuries with shovelling tend to be soft tissue, ligament and tendon strains associated with low back strain," says Bishop. To that list, Dr. Rindlisbacher adds disc herniations, along with shoulder bursitis and rotator cuff tendonitis, caused by lifting the shovel higher than your shoulders.

If you already have injuries in these areas, take extra precaution: don't press on if you feel pain, and don't be afraid to ask a neighbour, family member or friend for help. "You can always return the favour another day when your back has recovered," says Bishop.

In addition to musculoskeletal issues, you should always pay attention to "warning signs of heart distress, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue, nausea, dizziness or feeling lightheaded," says Boni.

And remember that no matter how healthy you are, a fall could befall us all. "Especially during thaw-freeze cycles, sloped areas can be very icy, and a light dusting of snow can cover these," warns Dr. Rindlisbacher. "Hip or wrist fractures can cause major problems, especially for the elderly. Falls with head trauma can actually be deadly at any age."

Working it out

OK, so you're all geared up and you've been perfecting your shovelling form. You want to take shovelling from a chore to serious exercise, but can the snow really replace your squat rack?

"There's no doubt shoveling is a workout,"says Dr. Rindlisbacher, "so feel free to substitute one of your general body workouts for an hour or so in the driveway." If you want a challenge, Dr. Koehle suggests switching the sides of your body you shovel on.

Bishop suggests shovelling in intervals. "Shovelling for 10 to 15 snow-filled shovels then breaking for some light stretching can be a fun way to ramp up the intensity, improve endurance and cardiovascular benefit, while ensuring you prevent your muscles from over tightening during activity."

You could also shovel in timed intervals, such as one minute of shovelling followed by one minute of rest, expanding the shovelling time and reducing the rest time as you grow more comfortable.

For those who really want to up their game, Bishop suggests setting a goal time in which to shovel half of your driveway (10 minutes, for example). Take a break, then try to complete the other half in less time.

You can also record your times and try to beat them the next time you have to shovel. Not only will this exercise and condition your body, but it's a smart way to break up the monotony and dread we've all felt when we see our driveways covered in white.