The dreaded weather report: another storm is on the way, this may curtail your gym plans yet again. No worries, you can get a good workout staying home. Shoveling snow – for those who are healthy and exercise regularly – is a fantastic workout. How fantastic? On average, 288 calories per hour. Even more impressive than the calorie burn is the nature of the workout. When done properly, shoveling snow is a high-intensity, full-body strength training workout that raises your heart-rate enough to qualify as a cardiovascular workout as well. This type of workout maximizes post-exercise calorie burn (EPOC), known as afterburn. The following is everything you need to know – proper form and strategy, safest attire and equipment, pre and post shoveling regimen, and when shoveling isn’t appropriate – to get a great workout while reducing risk for injury when the next winter storm hits.
Proper Form and Strategy: If you have the luxury of being able to choose when you venture out with the shovel, choose wisely. Information like total predicted accumulation, how wet (heavy) or dry (light) the snow will be, when the storm will begin and end, when snowfall will be heaviest, and if there will be mixed precipitation (sleet or rain) can be helpful in determining whether to shovel when the storm is over or to shovel in stages throughout the storm. Even the most fit can overdo it by overloading muscles not accustomed to shoveling. So, good form is extremely important:
- Use your legs. Lifting should be accomplished primarily through the legs, not the back or shoulders. The first movement as you scoop snow with the shovel is a basic squat: bend the knees, hinge at the hips (not at the waist), brace the core (flat back, belly button pulled inward, abs engaged) as you inhale. The “scooping” hand is on the handle while the “lifting” hand is grasping the shovel post just above the shovel blade, both elbows are bent. To lift the shovel, straighten legs, keeping core braced, as you exhale.
- Keep using your legs. The momentum of lifting with the legs assists the back and shoulders with “throwing” the snow off the shovel. A slight twist at the waist, pivot in the hips while straightening the arms toward the direction of where you want the snow to land is all that’s needed if you are properly using your legs.
- Don’t overdo the weight. If the snow is wet and heavy and/or the snow banks are tall (necessitating throwing the snow higher than your waist), don’t fill the shovel blade. The amount you can lift is determined by your form. If the momentum of straightening the legs isn’t forceful enough to throw the snow, causing you to arch your back , then you have too much snow in your shovel. Better to do more repetitions than throw your back out.
- Balance your arm workout. Your hand positions (which hand is on the handle and which is on the post) are determined by what feels most natural to you. To avoid an unbalanced arm and shoulder workout, force yourself to switch the hand positions on the shovel. You can time it (switch every 5 minutes, for example), or switch after a pre-determined number of rows, or, if you’re like me and you listen to music while shoveling, switch at the beginning of each song.
Safest Attire and Equipment: Use a good, quality shovel that is sturdy but not too heavy with a post that is the correct length for your height. Here are a few more tips on choosing the right shovel. As for attire, see my post on dressing for cold weather workouts. Insulated, water-proof snow boots are a must as well as insulated, water-proof gloves with good grip.
Pre and Post Shoveling Regimen: Don’t do the heaviest work right away. Like any vigorous workout, you want to warm-up first. Start with stairs or narrow walk-ways as a form of warm-up. Once you start to feel your heart-rate increase and torso warm up, then it’s a good time to tackle the stuff the plows left behind. After you come in from the cold, stretch your hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and upper arms. Examples of stretches by body part can be found at ACE Fitness. Lastly, don’t forget to hydrate. We sometimes forget we need to replenish fluids when it’s cold. Drink water before, during (if possible) and after shoveling.
When NOT to shovel. For those who have cardiovascular diseases (such as heart disease), pulmonary diseases (such as asthma, emphysema, or COPD), or those with conditions that affect circulation (such as diabetes or atherosclerosis) shoveling could be deadly. It can be dangerous for the elderly or extremely de-conditioned to shovel as well. Remember, shoveling more than a couple of inches of light snow is a real workout. If you can’t jog on a treadmill for 20 minutes, tackling a big shoveling job is probably not a good idea. If you’re not sure if shoveling is safe for you, consult your physician.
Mother Nature has been especially brutal in many areas of the country this year. Remember how Mom always told you to look on the bright side and make lemonade out of lemons? Well, here’s your opportunity to take a shovel and make it a calorie-burning, muscle-building machine.