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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times

How to shovel heavy, wet snow to save your back and your heart

A person shovels snow on West Foster Avenue near North Clark Street in the Andersonville neighborhood during a major snowstorm, Friday morning, Jan. 12, 2024. (Pat Nabong/Sun-Times)

Snow. Rain. Blizzard conditions. Hazardous travel. Sub-zero temps.

All-too familiar vocabulary this time of year.

But snow storms invariably will bring to mind one other word: Shoveling.

The storm making its way across the greater Chicago area today and tonight means streets, driveways and sidewalks need to be cleared. And while municipal and state plows take care of the streets and highways, it’s up to a legion of gas- or electric-powered snowblowers and good ol’ human-powered shoveling to clear up the rest.

Chicago Snowstorm
Read the latest news and information on the Chicago 2024 snowstorm.

But shoveling can come with severe health risks, especially for folks of a certain age, those with underlying health conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes and other heart illnesses, and not taking some general precautions such as frequent breaks and smart movements.

Although we originally published this story in 2019, the tips here are worth revisiting.

“It’s important that older people simply don’t go out and shovel and clear heavy, wet snow,” said Barry Franklin, director of preventative cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at William Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Michigan. “Unfortunately, every year when you’ve got major snowfalls you hear of people who go out and die suddenly.”

Here’s what you need to know to stay safe while digging yourself out after a big snow storm:

Shovel while it’s snowing

If the forecast calls for a heavy snowfall over a long period of time, don’t wait until it’s over to pick up a shovel. Plan to clear the snow at least once while it’s still falling and then again when the storm passes, according to Paul Hope, Home and Appliances Writer at Consumer Reports. 

If your driveway is far away from your house, start in the middle of the driveway and working your way out until you’ve cleared a path wide enough for your car.

If your driveway is very close to your house, start at the edge closest to your home and go back in the opposite direction at the end of each pass, getting a little further from the house each time. If you’re using a snowblower, turn the chute 180 degrees each time so that you’re always throwing the snow away from the house.

When shoveling, don’t throw the snow over your shoulder or to the side because that twisting motion will stress your back, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Try to push the snow instead of lifting it.

“If you must lift, squat with your legs apart, knees bent, and back straight. Lift with your legs. Do not bend at the waist,” the group said in a release. “Holding a shovelful of snow with your arms outstretched puts too much weight on your spine.”

Franklin also suggests taking frequent breaks to watch for heart attack warning signs and avoid putting too much stress on your heart. Although chest pain is the most common symptom, women are more likely to experience other symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain, according to the American Heart Association.

“Any discomfort that comes from the belly button on up could be an angina equivalent and would signal that you should stop shoveling immediately,” Franklin said.

Snow shovel or snowblower?

If you live in an area that gets constantly hit with major snowstorms, it might be safer to invest in a snowblower, according to Hope.

“From an injury standpoint alone, if properly used (a snowblower) has the potential to be infinitely safer,” Hope said. “If they live in a really snow-heavy region, they’re essentially putting themselves at a greater risk if they’re trying to skate by without a snowblower.”

There are five or six different types of snowblowers that are categorized by power source (corded electric, battery or gas) and the amount of snow they can handle (single, two, or three stage). Stage 1 machines can clear about 9 inches of snow while stage 3 machines can clear up to 18 inches, he said.

If you’re shoveling when the snow is light and fresh, Hope recommends using a wide, all-purpose, plastic snow shovel. But if the snow has had time to get wet and heavy, Hope suggests using a metal shovel with sides to help break up icy patches.

Who’s at risk and why is shoveling so dangerous?

Franklin said that those most at risk are 55 and older, have known or suspected coronary artery disease, or have one or more risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) or a habitually sedentary lifestyle.

Snow shoveling is so dangerous because it increases heart rate and blood pressure, Franklin explained, while exposure to the cold air decreases the flow of oxygenated blood to the heart.

Franklin said the average weight of a shovel full of heavy wet snow is 16 pounds, citing a small study he published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The men he studied were able to lift 12 times per minute for 10 minutes, moving nearly 2,000 pounds of snow.

“That’s the weight of a mid-size car,” he said. “To ask a 50-, 60-, 70-year-old to move 2,000 pounds in 10 minutes in cold environmental conditions with the wind blowing, it’s not surprising that this activity triggers heart attacks and sudden death each year.”

Some shouldn’t clear snow at all

Franklin said people over the age of 55 with known or suspected heart disease shouldn’t shovel snow at all.

Ask a neighborhood teen perhaps, or if you want to hire someone to plow your driveway, book that well in advance of the coming storm to avoid having to frantically shovel yourself out.

If you have to shovel, Franklin said to avoid heavy meals, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol both before and after clearing snow because that can put extra stress on your heart.

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends warming up your muscles for 10 minutes with light exercise before you begin shoveling. Wear layers to provide insulation as well as a hat and gloves that will keep your hands dry and shoes that have slip-resistant soles.


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