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Snow shovelling tips to help you safely dig yourself out of winter storms

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It’s January, we’re Canadians, so what’s a little stormy weather?

Lots! All those jokes about Canadian winters aside, the country’s in for some mighty powerful weather conditions this season. Environment Canada (weather.gc.ca/warnings) is warning of winter storms, tons of snowfall, high winds and special weather statements across the country.

Out east – well, it’s snowmageddon! The Weather Network is reporting  severe conditions all across Eastern Canada with winter warnings in Quebec, not to mention Ontario’s in the grips of one of the most severe snowstorms, with blizzard conditions permeating almost ever corner of the province. People are reporting stuck ambulances, firetrucks, first responders struggling to reach those in need fast enough along with closed highways and full hospitals.

And, of course, everyone’s been up since the crack of dawn clearing the snow. This is not the best time to overdo things, folks! Clearing snow can be disastrous, especially for those who are not in shape. You can fall and break something, strain your back, or bring on a heart attack.

According to living.medicareful.com, thousands of North Americans end up in hospital each year due to injuries brought on by snow shovelling – more than 100 die each year in the U.S., alone from this. “The most significant danger of snow shovelling is the strain it puts on your heart which can trigger a heart attack,” notes the website. “Studies have shown that even using a heavy snow blower can be dangerous.”

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Toronto Transit Commission workers try to clear a roadway as a bus sits stuck since the morning hours in Toronto after a major blizzard dumped as much as 60 cm of snow on parts of Southern Ontario, closing major highways and roadways, in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2022.
Toronto Transit Commission workers try to clear a roadway as a bus sits stuck since the morning hours in Toronto after a major blizzard dumped as much as 60 cm of snow on parts of Southern Ontario, closing major highways and roadways, in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2022. Photo by COLE BURSTON /AFP via Getty Images

“Shovelling itself isn’t necessarily bad for you — it’s more the conditions under which you’re shovelling that can cause cardiac events,” notes the Cleveland Clinic “Too much exertion, too quickly, can trigger a heart attack — especially in the cold — when our arteries tend to constrict, which in turn, can drive up our blood pressure.”

“Snow shovelling is very similar to being at ‘peak exercise’ on a stress test, so it puts a lot of strain on your heart,” adds cardiologist Luke Laffin on (health.clevelandclinic.org). “And for someone who isn’t used to actually exercising and being physically fit, it can predispose them to heart attacks.”

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Of course, if your heart doesn’t get you, your back will. What to do? Well, if you have health issues, are elderly, or just out of shape – call in the experts, or the kids down the street.

And, if you’re up to the job, do it properly – and be proactive. According to living.medicareful.com, there’s a wrong way to clear the snow – and a right way. And it starts with proper winter footwear that prevents slipping. Dress in layers. Stretch and do a light warm-up before heading out to prevent stress on muscles. If you’re able, try shoveling while it’s still snowing and there’s less on the ground. And try walking like a penguin, which distributes your weight over your planting foot.

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Dr. Maher Obeid from the Healing Path Chiropractic and Wellness Centre in Burlington, Ont.
Dr. Maher Obeid from the Healing Path Chiropractic and Wellness Centre in Burlington, Ont. Photo by supplied /Healing Path Chiropractic and Wellness Centre

Ontario chiropractor, Dr. Maher Obeid from the Healing Path Chiropractic and Wellness Centre in Burlington, Ont., (thehealingpath.ca) says it’s crucial to protect your back when doing something this strenuous: “It’s all about the hips, not the lower back when it comes to shoveling out there,” said Obeid in a recent interview. “Being mindful of having a straight back, bending with your knees and lifting with your legs is key.”

Obeid says when it comes to shovelling, “having good posture needs be top-of-mind with every scoop – so make sure your hand positioning along the shaft of the shovel is about 12 inches down from the handle to keep the back stable.” Obeid offers the following tips:

  1. Avoid twisting the spine, so let your foot lead the exercise. If you’re dumping snow to the right, keep the right foot facing right and pivot the entire body in that direction.
  2. When dumping snow, it’s important to avoid any loose arm movements. Control your movements by keeping your shovel close to your body at all times. The closer you are to the shovel load, the better chances of reducing stress to your back, shoulders and arms.
  3. With snowfall like this, it’s always good to take breaks. Although we’d like to get the shovelling of this magnitude done sooner than later, it’s always important to listen to your body first.
  4. And no matter the exertion, it’s always good to follow-up rigorous exercise like snow shoveling with a topical remedy to ease muscle tenderness,” Obeid recommends. “I like to use a topical cream like Awaye which works with the body’s endocannabinoid system to relieve soreness and acute pain.”

If you have no other choice but to shovel snow, Laffin says it’s important to weigh your risks and benefits and proceed accordingly. He offers the following tips:

Don’t push yourself too hard

“Take your time shovelling. If you feel your body beginning to get tired, go inside. Rest for a little bit.”

Make the chore manageable

“Try not to tackle your entire driveway all at once. Instead, Dr. Laffin says it’s smarter to divide up the work and take frequent breaks.”

Treat shovelling like you would any other sport or exercise

“Stay warm (don’t forget to dress appropriately) and hydrate while shovelling snow. It’s critical.”

Pay careful attention to how you feel both before and after shovelling

“If you or a loved one begins to show signs of heart trouble, or has trouble breathing after shovelling snow, call 911 immediately and seek medical care.”

When is it best to skip shovelling altogether?

If you have more than one medical condition or are over the age of 55, Dr. Laffin says it’s best to get someone else to shovel for you. It’s simply not worth the risk.

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