Donya Currie is the editor of The Free Lance-Star's Healthy Life section and Healthy Life Virginia newsletter.

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Shovel Safely

Used to exercising intensely in the cold? No? Then don’t think you can go outside and shovel two feet of snow without suffering some consequences.

If you’re young and otherwise healthy, a round of hard-core shoveling probably won’t leave you any more sore than a vigorous, new workout program would. But if you’re older or have any physical ailments, please be careful this weekend—and consider getting someone else to dig you out. If you’re over 65, you’re not only more vulnerable to a heart attack, broken hip or pulled muscles, you’re also more vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia.

“Cold weather puts an extra strain on the heart," say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, follow your doctor’s advice about shoveling snow or performing other hard work in the cold. Otherwise, if you have to do heavy outdoor chores, dress warmly and work slowly. Remember, your body is already working hard just to stay warm, so don’t overdo it.”

Yes, we all need to clear our sidewalks and dig out our cars after a snowfall. But a quickly shoveled walkway isn’t worth suffering over. I know I’ll take it easier this weekend than I did during the Dec. 19 storm. My husband was recovering from surgery that weekend, so the shoveling became my chore, and I ended up having a bad asthma flare-up  (despite getting lots of help digging out from friends and family, a stranger in search of a job, and a kind neighbor with a snow blower). Being dug out definitely wasn’t worth the weeks of coughing that followed—and it wouldn’t be worth it to you, either, if shoveling harmed your health. So …

Shovel smartly: Lift with the legs, people. It’s true of hoisting boxes, and it’s true of hoisting snow. Squat down rather than bending at the waist. Don’t let the pressure of all that snow fall on your back.  Also, clear the snow often—don’t wait until every last flake falls to start the job. Break it into lighter, more manageable chunks.

If you can, push the snow rather than lifting and dumping it, recommends the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (and you can just imagine why they weigh in on this). The academy also advises warming up your muscles before heading outside.

For asthma sufferers and those with other cold-sensitive lung conditions: Consider wearing a mask that covers your mouth and nose. I wear one, and I hear lots of terrorist and bank robber jokes, but the mask heats the air before I inhale it. It’s my best bet for preventing a flare-up.

If you end up sore: A heating pad and some ibuprofen or acetaminophen are good balms.

As for the kids: They will want to be out in the snow, and they should get to enjoy it, but they  need to come in if they show any of these signs of hypothermia: shivering, confusion, slurred speech, exhaustion, drowsiness, bright red, cold skin. Signs of frostbite include numbness and white, grayish or yellow skin.

If you’re young and fit: Shovel your hearts out, but be sure to stay warm and hydrated.

Finally: It’s not a myth that shoveling snow ups your risk of suffering a heart attack. So stop right away if you experience any heart attack symptoms, including chest pressure or pain, shortness of breath, jaw pain or nausea. (For a fuller list of symptoms, see


  • JohnGilmer

    That’s right! If you just go outside for 5 or 10 minutes at a time, moving the snow is little difference than mowing the lawn or raking the leaves.

    As soon as you “notice” the cold, come back inside.


    I have never had a problem keeping warm while shoveling. Quite the opposite, I sweat my brains out. I do recommend good, warm boots – mine are good to -40.

  • SkiBumMSP

    After having bust through a huge mogal run at 12,000 feet in -5 degree weather makes shoveling the bit of snow around here look easy (if that don’t get your heart pumping, than I don’t know what will!). Thus, I am used to strenuous exercise in cold weather (and add the altitude as well). I don’t like shoveling just because it is such a boring, monotonous task (like mowing the lawn). At least listening to an iPod while doing it helps break the monotony.

  • mich22408

    No one says you have to wait until there are 20 inches of snow to shovel. We plow the roads when the snow still is falling. Go out periodically and clear the drive/walk when there is only a couple of inches. Great exercise and you aren’t busting your back.