People and Places

Ask The Experts: Is snow shovelling good exercise — or deadly?

Now that the shock of winter has passed, it’s time to face facts: Winter means snow, and snow means shovelling — or snowblowing, or hiring someone else to take care of it for you.

Here, we talk to a variety of Ottawa health and fitness professionals about the risks and benefits of snow shovelling, how you can get the most out of this pastime (or chore, depending on your perspective), and how to decide if you should just pay that kid down the street to do it for you.

As Dr. Andrew Pipe of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute reminds us, “every year people die in Ottawa from snow shovelling. They might not know, even though they have risk factors or family heart disease, that shovelling snow is not a good idea.”

Dr. Andrew Pipe says if you're more than 45 years old, male, and have a family history of heart disease and/or high blood pressure, or are a smoker, you should think of a different way of clearing your driveway in the winter.
Dr. Andrew Pipe says if you’re more than 45 years old, male, and have a family history of heart disease and/or high blood pressure, or are a smoker, you should think of a different way of clearing your driveway in the winter. Photo courtesy of Dr. Andrew Pipe.

He says for those not used to physical activity shovelling snow can be risky, especially given the fact that it takes place outside and in the cold.

“People should really think about whether they should be shovelling,” Dr. Pipe said.

He paints the following scenario: “you’re rushing, late for work, and the plow has just dumped a load at the end of their driveway. And that is compressed and heavy snow, which is even more dangerous.”

If you are more than 45 years old, male, and have a family history of heart disease and/or high blood pressure, or are a smoker, you should think of a different way of clearing your driveway in the winter.

But that doesn’t mean women should be doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the white stuff. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 64 per cent of the women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms. Plus, the World Heart Federation notes heart attacks and strokes are responsible for twice as many deaths in women as all kinds of cancers combined.

Dr. Pipe suggests understanding your own risk factors, and if you’re not in very good physical shape, “make a local teenager wealthy — they need the money, and you don’t need the risk.”

But if you have assessed the risks and decided that shovelling snow is for you, there are ways to do it right — that is, to turn a tedious task into a full body workout complete with the benefits of fresh air.

For Jacqueline Ethier, co-owner of Pilates Space and a Pilates instructor for more than 15 years, it’s the experience of being outdoors that makes shovelling snow a go-to exercise for her. In her January newsletter, she reminded clients to “scoop in those abs when you’re shoveling!” And she has plenty of other tips.

Jacqueline Ethier says shovelling can be good exercise if done mindfully — otherwise it’s easy to injure yourself.
Jacqueline Ethier says shovelling can be good exercise if done mindfully — otherwise it’s easy to injure yourself. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Ethier.

Chris Stuewe is a certified Spartan Race coach, as well as a professional dancer and the trainer with Greco Lean &Fit. While he is quick to point out the risks involved, he explains below how to prevent injury should you decide to tackle the task.

Chris Steuwe says shovelling snow can be quite dangerous, so it's important to take care to do it properly. Photo courtesy of Chris Stuewe.
Chris Steuwe says shovelling snow can be quite dangerous, so it’s important to take care to do it properly. Photo courtesy of Chris Stuewe.

1. Would you say shovelling snow is a good form of exercise? If so, to whom is it best suited? If not, why?

Chris said: For certain people yes; for others, no. When shovelling snow properly nearly the entire body is incorporated to lift the weight of the snow and the cardiovascular demand is very high. For those with pre-existing conditions or injuries sometimes shoveling snow is not an option. Those who have pre-existing heart conditions, back injuries, or shoulder or knee injuries, shoveling snow can be quite dangerous. In those cases, it is not beneficial as exercise because the possibility of further injury, or even a trip to the hospital from a heart attack, outweigh the possible benefits.
For those who are in good physical condition, they still need to remember proper form, to not load the shovel with too much weight, and to take rests as needed.

Jackie said: Shovelling snow is a great reason to get outside and to be active in the winter.  I find it very enjoyable to shovel after a snowfall because the temperature is usually mild and you can work up a bit of a sweat.  It can be good exercise if done mindfully — otherwise it’s easy to injure yourself.

How can people reap the most benefits from shovelling?

Chris said: To do so safely and evenly, incorporating the whole body. Remember to switch your lead hand and foot at even time intervals or after a certain amount of shovels. Give yourself a cadence, increasing your heart rate and raising the benefits (or slow the cadence down to decrease cardio output and take a rest). Finally, try to make your shoveling load as consistent as possible.

Jackie said: Definitely engage your abs, so pull them into your spine as you shovel.  I prefer the push snow shovels for efficiency and safety, as you can scoop/push as much snow as your strength will allow and there’s less tendency to toss the snow aside.  I reserve the regular shovel for small areas like clearing stairs or narrow passageways.  If you prefer a regular shovel, then look for the ergonomic options on the market — and keep your hips and shoulders square in front of the shovel, moving your whole body (pelvis included) to toss the snow aside.

Is there anything people should do before and/or after heading out to shovel snow, in order to stay safe and get the most out of this exercise?

Chris said: Before any form of physical activity one should always do their best to warm up and prepare the body. Dynamic warm ups, which involve movement, are used before exercise. Examples include squats for your legs, trunk rotations for the lower back, and arm circles for shoulders, upper back, and chest.

After exercise, one should always stretch. Stretching elongates muscle fibres and aids in increasing circulation and injury prevention. Essentially, if you stretch after physical activity the next day you are less likely to feel as sore as you would if you don’t. Static and dynamic stretches can be used. Static stretches, which should only be done when muscles are warmed up, are held in one position for a longer period of time and provide a very beneficial stretch. Find stretches for hamstrings, glutes, and back.

Jackie said: Start with the easiest shovelling — the smaller areas with lighter amounts — and move more snow as you’ve warmed up.  After shovelling, your chest, butt, and legs could afford to get stretched.

Snow conditions can change quickly. Does the weight of the snow change the activity? How can people adjust their technique depending on the weight of the snow?

Chris said: Your technique should stay consistent the entire time you’re shovelling, as should the weight on your shovel. When shovelling, drive the shovel using your arms and body momentum provided by a small step forward at the same time. Then, bending the knees, keeping the back tall and arms bent, use the legs to lift. One thing you want to avoid when offloading the snow is rotating your body and offloading sideways. It’s better to offload snow forward or even straight back overhead (avoiding a snow shower!), rather than turning and throwing at hip height. This is one of the most common ways to shovel and why so many injuries occur.
Shovelling is much like a deadlift, so any round in the back or rotation of the torso should be avoided.

Jackie said: Heavier snow equals harder work.  Remember you’re lifting a weight, which is why you need to be mindful and always keep your body square in front of your shovel.  Start with small amounts of snow and work your way up to more snow in the shovel as your strength and endurance will allow.

Do your clients talk about using snow shovelling as an exercise?

Chris said: None of my clients has expressed snow shovelling as an exercise. Many have complained about it and, as we do live in Ottawa, it is a fact that unless you have a snow blower you will have a shovel in the winter. I try to make sure all my clients know and perform the proper way to shovel. If people take certain steps and think of it as exercise it becomes less tedious. The percentage of injury lowers immensely when you focus on what you are doing and how your body is moving instead of thinking about how tedious it is.

Jackie said: They don’t ask about it as exercise.  I think it’s a great way to get outside, get some fresh air, and enjoy the winter!

Social media links:

Dr. Andrew Pipe

Also the Heart Institute on Twitter and Facebook.

Jacqueline Ethier

Also Pilates Space Ottawa on Facebook.

Chris Stuewe