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Protect your back and shoulders when snow shoveling

Eric Pitcher, PT, CSCS

Shoveling snow! Every year the onset of winter marks the start of a new form of exercise for many Flagstaff residents – snow shoveling. The nature of snow removal is that it has to be done by most of us at some time; whether predictably or unexpectedly when our vehicles get stuck. The challenge lies in terms of the physical toll that it can take on your body; notably your back, shoulders, and heart!

The first and foremost rule of snow shoveling should be to pace yourself. However, most people focus more on “how much snow can I fit on my shovel.” The idea of pacing yourself is very important for anyone regardless of the activity (remember the story of the tortoise and the hare?), but particularly for those who are inactive. The heart is a muscle that is similar to other muscles in the human body; probably undertrained a bit and very susceptible to being overworked. Resting frequently and finishing the job in small bits will keep the heart ticking in manageable beats.

Other concerns with shoveling deal with back and shoulder injuries; often due to their overuse.  By increasing the work load on these body parts in a very short period of time, the muscles often stop working properly and fatigue rapidly.  This leaves the muscles and other structures in the area (discs, nerves, ligaments, etc.) at risk for injury. 

When considering the proper way to move and shovel snow, your back and shoulders will appreciate pacing just like your heart. Additionally, moving by pivoting your feet will keep the loads off of your spinal tissues as well as protect your shoulders. 

Try these stretches before, during and after your frosty treks into the wild world of your driveways and sidewalks:

  1. Lean backwards and extend your spine. Look up towards the sky and slowly exhale. This will provide relief to the spinal muscles that are doing much of the work while you are bent over shoveling. Repeat 3-5 times, stretching 10 seconds on each round.
  2. Swing your arms around from side to side in large circles, then across your chest. This will bring necessary blood flow to the muscles of your arms that are being unexpectedly overworked.  Repeat 5-10 times in each direction.
  3. Squat down and try to touch your backside towards your heels. Repeat this motion 5-10 times. This will prime your legs to do more of the lifting, instead of loading your back.
  4. Pivot on your toes from side to side, turning your hips, shoulders, etc., like what you would do if playing basketball or dancing. This engages some of the important muscles of your legs, reminding them to pivot while you move shovels of snow, instead of twisting your back excessively.

If you are still nervous about the prospects of moving snow, do your body a favor and employ the kid from down the street!
Written by Eric Pitcher, P.T., C.S.C.S. Eric is a physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist at Flagstaff Medical Center’s Therapy Services. To learn more about FMC’s Therapy Services, visit Services; to make an appointment, call 928 773-2125.