Snow shoveling safety tips

Mar 22, 2010 at 2:36 p.m. ET

Got snow? The recent winter storm that hit hard in the Northeast coupled with the other areas of the country that are covered with snow half the year compel a great majority of people to get outside and start shoveling. Whether you enjoy the fresh air and fitness of it or if you shovel snow purely out of necessity, chucking that fluffy - or dense - white powder puts you at risk for serious injury. Dr Jack Stern, MD, PhD, FACS, founding partner of The Brain & Spine Surgeons of New York offers the following snow shoveling safety tips and ways to avoid injury.

Woman Shoveling Snow

Condition yourself — even before the snow falls

One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to snow is not preparing their body for the rigors of picking up and hurling pounds and pounds of the white stuff, putting themselves at risk for back injuries.Regardless of the season, conditioning your core can prevent back injuries as well as improve your posture and tighten your waistline. You don't have to wait until winter arrives to work on your core strength.Board-certified neurosurgeon Dr Stern recommends core exercises for the mid-section, twisting the upper body, back extensions, crunches and squats. Flexibility of the upper and lower body is also important.You can strengthen your core with these exercises:

Warm up before shoveling snow

Even if you are in top shape, warming up before you shovel snow will keep you from straining your muscles and sustaining an injury. Dr Stern says the best warm-up moves imitate the torquing motions of snow shoveling that tend to overwork the back muscles."A quick 15- to 30-minute warm up is all you need. I recommend a set of 10 reps for each muscle group — too many reps can also strain the back," he suggests. He also recommends dressing warmly — but not too warmly. Wear thin layers of clothing and strip the outer layer off as needed to keep from getting overheated (snow shoveling is a lot of work!).

Use the right shovel

Another snow shoveling risk factor for back injury is using the wrong shovel. Dr Stern explains, "In choosing a right shovel, make sure that the length of the shovel accommodates your particular height and that the angle of the shovel suits you as you place that shovel over your shoulder. I strongly advise that you actually try out the shovel in the store before buying it."In addition, Dr Stern strongly advises against purchasing shovels over the Internet unless you've been able to personally try that particular type of shovel. Though convenient, buying a shovel online doesn't let you see how the shovel feels before you put it to use.

Take breaks

Another snow shoveling safety tip from Dr Stern is to take breaks while you are shoveling. "It is recommended to take 10-minute breaks when you are starting to feel strain. During these breaks, you can perform additional stretches…and hydrate," he adds.Also, to avoid overtaxing your muscles, alternate the way you shovel. Dr Stern says, "Shovel to the right side for a few minutes and switch to the left [which will] switch the muscle groups involved."


Like exercise, shoveling snow will raise your heart rate and increase the blood flow throughout your body. To avoid your blood pooling in your legs and causing you to get light-headed, keep moving once all the snow has been cleared. Walk around for a few minutes (not on ice), do a few stretches, and breathe deeply while your heart rate has a chance to come down. Dr Stern also advises that you keep hydrating.

What if you get injured?

"If despite the use of these techniques, you still develop back pain, use an ice pack and start yourself on a short trial of aspirin or preferably a short course of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories," Dr Stern advises. "If that still does not work, you might want to consider seeing your physician."

More tips for surviving the snow

Even though spring is scheduled for late March, winter weather can prevail. In fact, snow shoveling in spring can be even more challenging since the snow is often heavier with more moisture. Before winter makes an exit, keep reading for more winter survival tips.Must-have winter fitness footwear
Clothing to keep you warm while exercising outdoors
Shovel your way into shape
Winter fitness: Tips to brave the cold and get fit
8 Winter tips for outdoor fitness
How to stress less when you are snowbound