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The Other Dangerous White Powder

Shoveling snow poses serious health risks if you're out of shape

SATURDAY, Jan. 19, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Doctors see it after every sizable snowfall. People -- mostly middle-age men -- come streaming into their offices, hunched over and grimacing from the pain in their backs.

Even worse are those unfortunate ones who die in their driveways while shoveling the snow.

Clearing a path through that latest snowfall can be a health hazard, especially for people who are not used to doing vigorous exercise. The two major risks: back injuries and heart problems from overexertion.

After two of his close friends died while shoveling snow, Barry Franklin and his colleagues did an experiment to determine just how much energy shoveling snow requires.

Franklin, director of the cardiac rehabilitation program at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oaks, Mich., had 10 healthy but inactive men in their 20s and 30s run on a treadmill until they were exhausted to determine their maximum heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen consumption.

On another day, researchers had the men shovel heavy, wet snow at their own pace for 10 minutes, using a lightweight plastic shovel.

And what they found was: the men's heart rate and blood pressure after shoveleing equaled or exceeded the maximum on the treadmill.

"We were astounded by how taxing the snow shoveling was," Franklin says.

Although this might not pose a problem for most younger men, middle-age men and seniors should be careful. Exercising in the wind and cold puts an added stress on the body by constricting the blood vessels leading to the heart.

"At the same time we are asking our heart to act as hard as it can, the cold is making it more difficult. It creates a situation where the heart is starved for blood and oxygen," Franklin says.

This can lead to angina, dangerous heart arrhythmias or even heart attacks, he adds.

If you are still inclined to ignore the advice to take it easy out there, consider this: Franklin also measured the weight of the average scoop of snow. It was about 15 to 16 pounds, including the shovel.

That means if you scoop, on average, 12 times a minute, like the men in the study did, in 10 minutes you will have lifted almost one ton of snow.

"That puts a hell of a lot of stress on the heart," Franklin says.

Shoveling snow, especially if you do it improperly, can also put stress on your back.

"When it snows, we suddenly use our bodies in an unusual way," says Dr. Garth Russell, an orthopedic surgeon in Columbia, Mo. and spokesman for the American College of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "We end up with a significant number of back injuries as a result."

The primary reason for back injuries is due to twisting or throwing the snow over your shoulder, Russell says.

That motion can cause a disc, the soft cartilage cushion between the vertebra of your spine, to rupture. A ruptured disc can cause nerve damage that requires surgery to repair.

So here is what the experts advise:

  • The proper way to shovel is to squat with your legs shoulder-width apart, knees bent and back straight, not hunched over. Scoop small amounts of snow with the shovel.
  • Think about pushing the snow rather than lifting it. Either walk to where you want to dump it or toss the snow ahead of you, not off to the side or behind you.
  • Newly fallen snow is lighter than heavily packed or partially melted snow. So begin to shovel as soon as possible.
  • Keep the shovel close to your body and keep a good distance between your hands, which gives you more leverage and lessens the strain.

What to Do: If you have a bad back or a history of back injuries, avoid shoveling snow, according to the American College of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The same holds true if you have a heart condition.

If you are going to shovel, here are more tips for doing it safely.

  • Warm up and stretch your muscles before getting started.
  • Shovel in 15-minute intervals, with a rest in between. Even though the air is cold and you may not feel overheated, drink fluids while shoveling.
  • Listen to your body and heed such signals as shortness of breath or chest discomfort. If you have pain after shoveling, take a mild painkiller and rest. If the pain doesn't subside in a day or two, see your doctor.

For more information on exercise and the cold weather, visit the American Heart Association.

For tips on staying safe in snowstorms and what to keep in your car in case you become stranded, visit the Federal Emergency Management Association's Web site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Barry Franklin, Ph.D., director of cardiac rehabilitation program, Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oaks, Mich.; Garth Russell, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, Columbia, Mo.
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