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Shoveling and Back Care

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shoveling back care

What a winter! I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen this much snow! For those of us with snow blowers, it’s enough of a challenge  just figuring out where to put it all. Without one, it becomes important to be aware of what we are doing out there. There are several things we can do to make shoveling safer for our bodies.

First, we need to understand that shoveling, while it may not be everyone’s first choice for a workout, is a challenging physical activity. A shovel full of snow can weigh anywhere from 12 to 20 pounds, depending on how wet it is. The movement necessary to get that 12 pounds from the driveway to the top of that ridge involves the use of pretty much every muscle in the body. There is a combination of pushing, lifting, twisting and throwing activities, never mind scraping and chipping at the icy layers. The higher the banks, the more exaggerated the movement. Add to this that in half an hour, one might fill the shovel 30 to 50 times, each time going through that complex pattern of movement. Proper use of the body and back care can make the difference between an enjoyable experience and a real pain in the back.

When we go to the gym, if we are being intelligent about our workout, we incorporate a warm-up, breaks and changes in our activity. Hopefully, we wouldn’t jump right in and do a bunch of biceps curls on one side to exhaustion, without counterbalancing on the other side. We might start with a little bit of cardio to get the blood flowing, maybe some stretching to limber up, and then get into a balanced routine that works both sides, and mixes work on different muscles and muscle groups.

So in an ideal situation, would we not apply the same logic to shoveling? A few minutes of stretching, simple aerobic activities like jumping jacks or treadmill before, during and maybe after, can be an excellent approach to keeping the body loose and well supplied with necessary blood, reducing the possibility of injury. Resting breaks every so often can be enough to stay aware of where we are feeling it, and whether it might be a good idea to change our approach.

Changing hands with the shovel is the equivalent of doing those biceps curls on the opposite side. The workload is distributed across both sides of the body, avoiding overloading one shoulder, and uneven tension patterns in the back from constantly rotating to the same side. Mixing tossing with pushing is another great way to assure we are not overdoing any one thing. Keeping the shovel close to the body reduces the amount of work the muscles must do to get the job done.

Legs, Yes Legs! Need to be incorporated in the process. If we plant our feet, and do all the work with the shoulders, arms and back, our arms become exhausted quickly, and you can be almost guaranteed to feel it in the back the next day. Bending at the knees and using the legs to lift as much as possible alleviates much of the stress on the upper body. Creating the twist needed to get the snow from the ground to its final resting place with the feet, legs and hips means the low back and core have stable support and don’t have to work nearly as hard. Walking to the place where the load needs to be dropped rather than throwing it long distances is another great way to use the strongest muscles most efficiently.

If the back is already a little unstable, support braces are a great way to protect the back, and are readily available at many of the larger building supply centers and hardware stores. Remember, a little back care beforehand can save a lot of aches and pains later!

Most of all, maintaining a level of awareness about how tired we are, and listening to that, is huge! It’s when we are tired that we are most likely to hurt ourselves. And when the job is done, massage is a fantastic way to relieve those aches and pains of a hard workout!

Please leave comments about your snow experiences this winter, and additional suggestions for self care!


  1. What great insights about shoveling – and I love the conversational voice you used to share your wisdom! I was pretty confident I wouldn’t learn anything new. However, it was really helpful to put into context the particular strains that are placed on the body and to realize that there are numerous proactive things you can do instead of avoiding shoveling altogether.

  2. Heading south Used to be a good alternative….not so sure these days!

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