Ahhh, Alberta winters! Sure, it’s beautiful and there are many great activities we can enjoy in this snowy wonderland. However, do we see a lot of snow shovelling injuries this time of year! That early winter snow is typically so wet and heavy. Our necks, shoulders and lower backs really pay for it. The problem is we haven’t shovelled snow for six months and our bodies are just not ready for this heavy load that gets ‘dumped’ on us.
There are a few simple things to keep in mind to try and make shovelling a little easier. First of all…hire someone else! Ah, if only it were that easy. This is an activity that you need to limber up for at least a little. Typically, we just grab that shovel and get this chore out of the way. Your body will thank you for getting a bit prepared ahead of time.
- WARM UP. Take a few easy side bend stretches to warm up the lower back. No long holds, just 5-10 seconds, 2x each side. A couple of mini lunge stretches each side will help stretch out your hips. Try some shoulder circles forwards and backwards. If you don’t have full shoulder range of motion, try some shoulder blade circles each direction. Then gently stretch your neck side to side.
- AVOID SLIPPING. Ensure you have good boots with a sturdy tread or Yak Trax on to prevent slipping on wet snow or ice. You may need to sprinkle some sand on slippery areas or small hills you need to manoeuvre around after you shovel.
- SHOVEL SELECTION. I know we want to get the most bang for our effort and use the largest shovel blade. This only makes the job harder on our bodies unfortunately. Select a shovel with a smaller blade. This will result in a lighter load to push and lift and prevent the chance of injury.
- FOCUS ON POSTURE. Try to keep your back fairly straight and bend through your hips and knees. Push the snow to disperse it rather than lifting and tossing it where possible. If you have to lift and toss, take smaller amounts of snow, engage your lower abdominal muscles and exhale as you lift. Get as close to the load of snow as possible by holding down lower on the shovel and bending your knees rather than rounding through your back.
- DON’T TWIST AND SHOUT. The weakest integrity of our spinal discs is when our back is in a flexed and rotated position. This means we are at a higher risk of injury when we are in this position. Our muscles have to work harder to support the spine because the surrounding structures are less able to. Not only do we bend forward and rotate to toss snow out of the way – we are doing this with a long lever and heavy weight at the end of it.
- TAKE BREAKS. Try not to tackle all of it in one go. I know, this is easier said than done! Taking mini breaks to stand up tall, roll your shoulder blades and stretch side to side will go a long way in preventing a repetitive strain injury in your neck, back and shoulders.
- WARM UP AND COOL DOWN. After your job is done, head inside to warm up with a hot chocolate (or rum and egg nog)! Take a few minutes to repeat some of the stretches you did at the beginning. Lower back side stretches, lunges, shoulder circles, a chest stretch and neck stretches. This will help ease off any muscle tension and strain from shovelling.
There is more to shovelling snow that just doing a chore. It is a strenuous activity that requires a bit of preparation, patience and technique. With these preventative tips in mind, hopefully you can stay healthy and strain free! It’s been a challenging year and we are all happy to put it behind us. Bragg Creek Physiotherapy is wishing everyone a very happy and healthy holiday season. May 2021 bring scientific advances (a vaccine!), kindness, good news stories and healthier communities. Happy Holidays and best wishes to this wonderful community.
Jennifer Gordon (BSc.PT, GunnIMS, AFCI)