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Shovel Hacks That Save Your Back

And may prevent a heart attack

Snow Shoveling Hacks

Kathleen Finlay/Getty Images

One-third of heart attacks occurred either the day after a snowfall or soon after snowfalls lasting two to three days.

You’ve got that snow shovel handy by the front door, right? The Farmers' Almanac's famous 200-year-old formula predicts that the Southeast will see below-normal winter temperatures, with above-average precipitation. From the Great Lakes into the Northeast, it predicts snowier-than-normal conditions.

Likewise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), below-average temperatures are favored along the Northern Tier of the country from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest and in southeastern Alaska. Hey, if you need to gear up for heavy precipitation, who better to ask than some guy named Noah? (Or maybe his name was Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.) Wetter-than-average conditions are favored across most of the northern United States — extending from the northern Rockies to the eastern Great Lakes, and in the Ohio Valley, northern Alaska and Hawaii. Yes, it does snow in the Aloha State — on the summits of some volcanoes.

Is it just us — or is the weather getting wackier? This week, some cities in the Lone Star State got some rare, real snowfall — ahead of Detroit! Guess the Jet Stream didn’t get that memo about not messing with Texas. Well, at least J.J. Watt is good with it.

If you’re already in shape and don’t own a snowblower, seasonal storms are a free gym membership courtesy of Mother Nature. Shoveling can be more strenuous than exercising full throttle on a treadmill. You may exceed 75 percent of the maximum heart rate, especially if you’re heaving the wet stuff or scooping too much at a time.

But men age 50-plus going mano a mano with Old Man Winter need to get real about their fitness level.  Guys who haven’t been working year round on cardio might as well nickname that shovel “The Widow Maker.”  The cardiac risk is as serious as, well … a heart attack.

A Canadian study earlier this year found that nearly 60 percent of deaths and hospital admissions due to heart attack were in men, most commonly seen the day after a snowfall. One-third of heart attacks occurred either the day after a snowfall, or soon after snowfalls lasting two to three days. "We suspect that shoveling was the main mechanism linking snowfall with myocardial infarction," writes Nathalie Auger, M.D., University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre, with coauthors in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. "Men are potentially more likely than women to shovel, particularly after heavy snowfalls."

Women did not display the elevated cardiovascular risk seen in men, but ladies, you’re not totally in the clear. Sprains, strains and significant back injuries are also reasons why emergency rooms gear up for extra traffic once the white stuff starts sticking. Pushing a heavy snowblower can also be a strain, according to Harvard Health Blog. And consider that cold weather can boost blood pressure, interrupt blood flow to part of the heart and make blood more likely to form clots.

Each successive snowstorm ups the risk, adding stress to mind and body. You recent transplants to the Snow Belt know how it is. Snowstorm No. 1: Winter Wonderland! Storm No. 4: Well … whatcha gonna do?  Storm No. 5: Wish my back wasn’t so sore. Storm No. 7: Why didn’t I buy a snowblower before they ran out? Storm No. 9: Wonder if this is the last one? Storm No. 11: REALLY?

To stay safe you need to stay sane and rational. If you think you can just boot up and go out there after months on the couch, you’re missing a few marshmallows in your hot cocoa, if you know what we mean. Besides good common sense, use good mechanics.

AARP has rounded up the best snow-removal techniques to keep you safe this winter. 

Consider your health and fitness, advises Brian Frechette, director of Elliot Rehabilitation Services in Manchester, N.H. Do you suffer from cardiac issues? Are you not feeling well? Are you recovering from an injury? Have you been strengthening your core during workouts? Get the all clear from your doctor before clearing the driveway with a shovel or a blower. If you’re not up for the exertion, don’t risk your health. There's no reason you can’t ask a neighbor, service or family member to help.

Dress appropriately in layers for warmth, advises Frechette. Do not wear anything tight, stiff or restrictive. Most important, don’t attempt to shovel while wearing an inflatable T-Rex costume, especially on windy days. Apparently, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, 
this is a thing.

Use the right tool for the job. A shovel that’s too short, too heavy or too unwieldy puts more strain on your body. Ergo … ergonomics. Here's the tool Wirecuttet testers rated as tops.

Stretch before and after you shovel — just as you should stretch before cardio or strength exercise to help prevent injury. 

Bend your knees and lift the weight of the snow with your legs so you don’t throw your back out of whack. Keep your abdomen engaged.

When possible, keep the shovel close to your body. Increased strain to the low back during lifting occurs when you have the weight far from your body.

Push your shovel from the edge of the handle, shifting your body weight from back leg to front leg instead of bending at the waist. Keep those knees bent! 

Don’t try to save time by lifting too much. Insert the shovel vertically into the snow, step on the blade to loosen a small amount and lift that. 
Frechette calls this the “snowbank technique.”

Walk the snow over toward the pile you’re accumulating, instead of twisting and turning. If you must turn, try to pivot with your legs instead of twisting with your lower back.

Take rest and stretch breaks. If you become overly sweaty, dizzy or short of breath, get out of the cold and go chill for a while. If you continue to feel ill — or suspect a serious medical problem — seek emergency help right away. 

Drink plenty of water.

Enjoy the outdoors and being neighborly.  There’s something about the cold stuff that warms a community.  A Portland, Ore., AARP member told us, “I noticed that neighbors were clearing their sidewalks, and people were out in droves walking, playing, talking. I think major snow events end up calming traffic and creating good social conditions.” Here’s your chance to chat up neighbors you normally just wave at. If you’ve got a snowblower and are in good health, help out others in need. (Shout-out to George and Dominic, blizzard-busting heroes of the old neighborhood. Remember the Polar Vortex of  ’14 guys? Good times.) Contact your local senior center or AARP office. You also can find neighbors in need by searching your ZIP code at our volunteer hub here. Because we know you care. Now go share this with those you care about, or those you want to thank for keeping your sidewalks safe. Warm winter wishes!