Living in the Great White North is a beautiful thing, but it can come at a price, and I don’t mean the heating bill! Cities in Canada can average 2 metres (or 6.6 ft for you southerners!) of snow fall every winter. If done well, shovelling snow can actually make you stronger instead of wearing you down. However every year we hear the horror stories of a neighbor or family member who has hurt themselves while shovelling.
A study from the US looked at the injuries and medical emergencies associated with snow shovelling. Of those injuries, 54.7% were to soft tissue structures (muscles, ligaments and tendons), with the lower back accounting for 34.3% of those cases. The majority (53.9%) of these injuries occurred due to acute musculoskeletal exertion, being followed by slips and trips (20.0%) as the second most common cause of injury. These injuries can be prevented if you prepare before you brace for the cold and start shovelling.
Here are some MoveSafe Principles you should follow:
1. Get Prepared
Warming up the specific muscle groups you will be required to use while shovelling can help reduce your risk for musculoskeletal injury.
Some of the most important muscle groups you will use are your glutes and hamstrings. These muscles work together to allow you to lift the snow. You can warm them up by practicing a few hip hinges.
Performing a few shoulder hinges will increase the mobility in your upper back which will allow you to position your shoulders in a stronger and more stable position as you shovel.
Core and Balance
It is also a good idea to add in a few balance exercises to activate your core and other stabilizing muscles which will decrease your risk of slips and falls.
See below a short follow along video for this Warm-Up routine:
2. Choose Your Equipment Wisely
Picking the right equipment for your task can help you maintain a safe snow shovelling technique.
- Choose a lightweight shovel that has a plastic or wood handle with a metal or plastic blade.
- Don’t select too large of a blade or you may be tempted to overload the shovel.
- Look for a shovel that when standing upright measures up to your elbow, this will help limit the amount of stooping required.
- Use a straight handle shovel for lifting snow, and a bent handle shovel for pushing snow.
- Dress for the weather by wearing moisture wicking base layers and water resistant top layers. Ensure your hands and ears are covered to prevent frostbite.
- In many cases, there can be unsuspecting layers of ice underneath fresh snowfall. Wear boots that provide good traction or strap on a pair of ice cleats to your boots to reduce the risk of slipping.
- If you are using ice melt or salt, consider using a pet friendly or environmentally friendly variety. Additionally, consider pouring some into a smaller, easy to carry bucket and use a garden trowel, or scoop of some kind, to evenly distribute.
3. Move Well
Use the MoveSafe ‘Big 3’ healthy postures and movement technique while you are shovelling to keep your back healthy and strong.
- Stable Base: Position your feet at a good width that allows you to move forward and backwards, with side-to-side stability as well. For snow shovelling, a staggered stance works best.
- Shoulders Anchored: Roll the shoulders back and imagine tucking the shoulder blades into your opposite back pockets. This should align your shoulder joints, engage your back and shoulder stabilizer muscles, as well as bring your head into neutral alignment with your torso.
- Hinge at the Hips: Brace the core (while still breathing) and bend through the hip joints. The hip joint is designed for movement and power!
- When you are able, try to push the snow instead of lifting it. This will reduce the muscle load on your back.
- If you do need to lift and throw the snow, don’t throw it behind or directly beside you. This will cause you to rotate which could injure your knee or back. Instead aim to throw the snow 20° to either side of you.
- Don’t overfill your shovel, lift in smaller amounts to reduce load especially if the snow is wet and heavy.
- Shovelling is hard work and you are likely to break a sweat which puts you at risk for hypothermia. Take Interrupt breaks to refresh your posture and to pace yourself to prevent sweating.
Ensuring that you come back inside healthy after shovelling snow is important. We have created a downloadable one page checklist that you can post by your door to remind you of the tips included in this article everytime you walk outside to shovel. If you are interested in learning more about how the body functions to regain your balance when you do slip, check out our article on Preventing Slips, Trips and Falls.