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Shovel snow with caution to avoid injury

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Question: How dangerous is it to shovel snow? I am just over 50 years old and not very active. Should I get my wife to do this chore? (Just joking, of course.)

Answer: The problem with shoveling is that we use the smaller muscles of the upper body to accomplish most of the work. This causes the cardiovascular response to be greater than it would be if the same amount of work was done using the larger muscles of the hips and legs or if the whole body was involved in the work.

To make it worse, snow shoveling is done in cold weather, which increases the challenge. If you are not very fit, or if you have a compromised cardiovascular system, shoveling snow could become a problem.

So how do you avoid problems? The best solution might be to buy a snow blower. With a snow blower, the machine does most of the lifting and throwing, and all you have to do push the machine, which involves the large muscles of the hips and legs.

If you can't or don't want to buy a snow blower, consider the following guidelines, a few of which come from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:

1. Use a "pusher" type shovel so that the amount of lifting is reduced and snow can be pushed using the larger muscles of the lower body.

2. If you use a snow shovel, consider buying one with the "S"-shaped handle so you don't have to bend over as far to move the snow.

3. Hold the shovel close to your body so that the mechanical leverage is more favorable.

4. If you must lift, squat with your legs rather than bending forward at the waist.

5. Scoop up smaller portions of snow than that shovel will hold, especially if the snow is wet and heavy.

6. Clean the area before the snow gets too deep.

7. Avoid throwing the snow. Throwing the snow not only increases the stress, you can also easily twist your back.

8. Wear warm clothes, gloves and a hat to avoid losing heat too rapidly.

9. Be sure your boots are slip-resistant and watch out for icy patches so you don't fall.

If you have a known medical problem that could be exacerbated by shoveling, talk to your physician before trying to do the work. If you feel discomfort in your jaw, back or arms while shoveling, stop and call your doctor.

If you are out of condition this year, consider beginning a regular exercise program so you will be ready to shovel in years to come.

Update: An article in the most recent Running & Fit News (January 2002) reported possible side-effects associated with a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. These drugs have been associated with tendon problems — from mild tendinitis to complete tendon rupture — when taken by individuals who exercise. Apparently the symptoms can arise from two to 60 days from the time you start taking the drug.

The reason this information is so important is that the drug Cipro, well-known for its use in treating anthrax, is a fluoroquinolone. Cipro is most often prescribed for urinary tract infections.

If you need to take an antibiotic for any reason, be sure to discuss your exercise plans with your doctor. If you doctor chooses a fluoroquinolone drug, consider cutting back you the intensity of your training and report any orthopedic pain.


Garth Fisher is the former director of the Human Performance Research Center at Brigham Young University.