The Pitfalls of Snow Shoveling

Jan. 3, 2001 -- Push, lift, throw. Folks living in the snowy parts of the country are all too familiar with the routine of shoveling the driveway and sidewalks. But like brushing teeth, some people never seem to get the technique down quite right, and that's not good. Experts warn that serious -- even devastating -- injuries await those who are careless.

Gerald Fletcher, MD, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and a spokesman for the American Heart Association, says shoveling snow puts an enormous strain on the heart. And in those who don't exercise regularly, the activity could even trigger a heart attack. "The basic problem is, arm exercises and leg exercises are a little different. The arm is a small muscle mass," he tells WebMD. "[Using it] causes blood pressure to go higher. [Also] what happens is people get anxious about shoveling snow. It's cold weather, an added stress, and they use their arms [instead of their stronger legs]."

"A sensitivity to one's cardiac [heart] status has to be at the top of the list" of snow-shoveling concerns, agrees Stuart Hirsch, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon in Bridgewater, N.J. "The heart is our most important muscle."

But, he says, there are other problems: "Slipping and falling while snow shoveling are common, and we see fractures of the ankle, wrist, and shoulder." And there are sprains, strains, and even more devastating injuries -- such as amputations. Hirsch says that can happen when hands, fingers, and forearms are used to clear the chutes of snow-blowing machines. Those injuries -- and many others -- can, of course, be prevented. Hirsch says it all starts with a few simple rules, many of which are included in recent snow-shoveling injury prevention tips from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:

  • Push snow. Don't lift it unless you absolutely have to. And if you have to lift snow, use the stronger leg muscles for support, not the back.
  • Don't throw snow over your shoulder or to the side. "The back is least able to tolerate torque and twisting," Hirsch says.
  • Shovel early and often. This keeps the amount of snow that has to be removed to a minimum. Plus, getting at the stuff quickly keeps it from freezing or partially melting and becoming harder to remove.
  • Use the proper equipment; from a snow shovel (not a garden one) to boots.
  • Limit snow-shoveling sessions. "Most of us don't put in more than 30-60 minutes of exercise," Hirsch says, and snow shoveling should follow suit.
  • And make no mistake about it, snow shoveling is exercise.

The Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health, issued in 1996, showed that a 150-pound man shoveling snow for an hour could burn about 600 calories. The government thus considers snow shoveling a "moderate intensity" activity. But a study from North Dakota State University found that in young, healthy adults, snow shoveling actually became a "vigorous intensity" activity for much of a measured 15-minute period.

Mike Barnes, who grew up around the snow-belt cities of Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y., and now works as director of education for the National Strength and Conditioning Association, says snow shoveling is fine exercise -- but not exactly a replacement for visits to the gym. "I wouldn't use it as a modality of exercise. You only get so much snow."

That may be true in some years. But this is turning into an extraordinarily snowy, and thus physical, winter.

Medically reviewed October 2001 by Gary D. Vogin, MD.