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Warm up, don't wait (and other tips for snow shoveling)

Shoveling snow can be hazardous to the health

Shoveling snow can be hazardous to the health without taking precautions beforehand, according to experts who have tips to avoid injuries or medical emergencies. Credit: NEWSDAY/JULIA GAINES

As if shoveling snow from the driveway wasn't already physically exhausting in normal times, add COVID-19, months of working from home and a sedentary existence during the pandemic, and the risk increases for injury or a potentially fatal medical emergency. Here are some tips on how to stay safe and healthy while clearing the snow.

  • Warm up beforehand. It's particularly important for people who are out of shape, older, or have been sedentary during the pandemic, to get the blood flowing before a strenuous activity like shoveling snow, said Dr. Russell Camhi of Northwell’s Health Orthopedic Institute, and Hofstra University’s head team physician. Some suggestions, repeating each in three sets of 10: jumping jacks; a standing squat (stand with feet shoulder-width apart, bending knees to 90 degrees as if sitting in a chair and then stand back up); lunges (with feet shoulder-width apart, step forward 2 feet with one leg, bending to about 90 degrees, stand back up and put feet together, then alternate to the other leg).
  • When shoveling, bend at the knee and lift with the legs, not the back.
  • Do not wait until all the snow has fallen to start the job. Shovel every few hours, even if, and especially if, the snow is supposed to come down for a while. Clearing snow that’s piled up is not only physically taxing, but snow can freeze or otherwise get heavier, and thus get harder to deal with. "I would go out, and I would just crack at it every couple hours," said Steve Howell, owner of Island Park-based 24/7 Property Maintenance, which specializes in snow removal. "I'd rather go out, personally, do a couple of inches, couple of inches, couple of inches, instead of going out there, trying to shovel a foot, two feet of snow." Taking a quick break from clearing snow Monday afternoon, Howell added: "My father used to say, ‘slow and steady wins the race.’"
  • William Oswald, senior manager for physical therapy at NYU Langone who oversees practices in Lake Success, East Meadow and Garden City, suggests warming up for 10 minutes — marching in place, climbing up and down the stairs, doing 10 to 20 backward bends, to counteract the repetitive motion of shoveling snow. Back injuries are the most common ones physical therapists see. "A lot of people have been working from home, sitting in a chair that they’re not used to," Oswald said. He added: "You’ve been sitting for weeks if not months and then you go out and you’re doing this repetitive lifting."

  • Don’t shovel when having trouble breathing — one of the effects of COVID-19 — feeling chest pains from doing exercise or if you have an uncontrolled cardiac condition, Oswald said. Doing so under those conditions could prove fatal, he said.
  • For anyone who has had COVID-19 or is susceptible to it, if outside temperatures are below freezing, spend no more than 60 minutes outside, warm up inside for an hour, then return to shoveling. "You don’t want to increase your susceptibility to viral infection, whether that’s COVID-19" or common winter viruses.
  • Oswald said to take frequent breaks and stay hydrated.
  • Those over age 70, or who have been especially sedentary during the pandemic, should consider letting someone else shovel for them. Both of these factors increase the risk for falls and fractures. Needing to go to an emergency room for any reason can increase the likelihood of being exposed to someone with COVID-19, Camhi said.
  • Shortness of breath, chest pressure, palpitations, feeling like the heart is racing or beating irregularly, these symptoms could mean the heart is struggling to keep up and could prove fatal, said Dr. Hal Skopicki, head of cardiology at Stony Brook University Hospital. "If you’re feeling symptoms, immediately stopping is what you need to be doing," and if any of the symptoms persist or recur after even small amounts of activity, go to the emergency room.

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