Shovel Safely: 4 Questions Before Clearing Your Driveway

Shoveling is a necessary chore in the winter, but depending on your overall health and fitness level, you may want to leave it in someone else’s hands. ProMedica Physicians doctors Matthew Rennels, DO, sports and family medicine, and A. Vincent Songco, MD, cardiology, weigh in on how to ensure that you are fit and fully prepared for the task.

1. Am I fit for this type of physical activity?

Shoveling may not be a traditional workout, but it takes more energy than you may think. “It is a moderate to aggressive type of activity,” says Dr. Rennels. “If you’re huffing and puffing and having trouble with chest pain or shortness of breath, you should not be doing it.”

Dr. Songco agrees: “People don’t realize how high stress shoveling can be. It’s actually equivalent to going full boar on the treadmill.”

If you’re unsure about your fitness level, check in with your doctor first to ensure that you are able to shovel.

2. Do I (or could I) have a heart condition?

Dr. Songco advises his patients who have had a heart attack or have known blockages in their arteries not to shovel snow because the activity can lead to further heart issues.

“We see a spike in heart attacks around this time of year and there’s a reason for it,” says Dr. Songco. “When your body gets cold, the blood vessels constrict and that stresses your heart. Your blood pressure goes up and it increases the workload on your heart. When you add physical activity to that, it adds to the stress.”

If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, confusion, chest pressure, lightheadedness or vision changes, you need to stop shoveling and either call your primary care provider or, in the case of emergency, 9-1-1.

Learn more about your heart health.

3. Do I have a back, bone or joint condition?

Dr. Rennels stresses the importance of proper body mechanics while shoveling. “If you’re having any aches or pains, shoveling should be avoided to prevent straining yourself,” he says.

Proper mechanics are also important. Warm up first and take it slow. “It’s hard when you see a full driveway covered in snow to take it easy, but start with a small shovel and take it step wise at a time,” says Dr. Songco.

Again, check in with your doctor first if you have back, bone or joint problems before shoveling.

Learn more about your bone and joint health. 

4. Am I prepared for the cold?

After a few minutes of shoveling, you may start to feel yourself warm up, but you should still be prepared for low temperatures. “The best thing is to keep yourself dry and layer,” advises Dr. Rennels. “As with anything else, if you’re exerting energy, you’re sweating and that can cause you to get cold pretty quick. So keep layers around and interchange layers to stay dry.”

Frostbite poses a real risk, too. Dr. Rennels says to be on the lookout for skin that is severely cold, numb, tingly, or discolored (purple or pale). “Get yourself dry and back into a warm environment. If it persists into the next day have it evaluated by a medical professional,” he warns.

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