Yesterday morning, when my husband and I were shoveling the five inches of overnight snowfall, it occurred to me I hadn’t yet posted my annual safe shoveling workout this winter. The groundhogs gave us mixed signals this year but, chances are, we’ve got a few more shoveling events in store for us before all is said and done. So, here’s the scoop on why shoveling is a great workout (for some of us) and how to do it, and other cold weather workouts, safely.
Unlike working out in extreme heat, working out in cold temperatures can be beneficial if your goal is maximum calorie burn. The body needs to work extra hard to keep the core warm while also supplying the cardiovascular and muscular systems with oxygen and blood to get you through your workout. The best way to accomplish both of these things is for the body to generate its own heat and energy in the form of calories burned. So, the more the mercury drops, the more calories we burn when compared to the same workout on a milder day.
Shoveling has additional calorie-burning benefits. On average, we burn 288 calories per hour while shoveling. Even more impressive is the nature of the workout. Shoveling is a high-intensity, full-body strength training workout that raises the heart-rate enough to qualify as cardiovascular exercise too. Plus, this type of workout maximizes post-exercise calorie burn (EPOC), known as after-burn. Meaning, in the end, one burns far more than 288 calories per hour while building muscle and strengthening bones.
Conditions that limit winter workouts & shoveling: Working out in extreme cold, as the boosted calorie burn implies, is taxing on our bodies, particularly the cardiovascular, pulmonary and circulatory systems. When you add shoveling to the mix, it’s even more rigorous. It’s recommended that those with the following conditions avoid shoveling more than a few inches of snow and check with their physicians for guidance on cold-weather activities:
- Cardiovascular: coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, heart failure, cardiomyopathy, congenital heart disease
- Pulmonary: chronic asthma, COPD, emphysema. lung cancer, edema
- Circulatory: atherosclerosis, diabetes with neuropathy, history of stroke, embolism or aneurysm
- Elderly, obese, deconditioned or sedentary individuals: If you can’t jog on a treadmill for 20 minutes without stopping, it’s probably unsafe for you to shovel heavy snow or for extended periods of time.
For those for whom it’s safe to venture outside for a winter workout or to shovel, remember to take these precautions to stay safe and injury free:
- Dress in layers:
- Under layer: Synthetic, thin fabrics that wick away moisture. Avoid 100% cotton.
- Middle layer for vigorous workouts: This is your insulation layer to absorb and capture heat from your body. You want it to be warm but not bulky. Wool and fleece are good insulating yet lightweight fabrics.
- Top layer for vigorous workouts: A lightweight jacket with a water resistant shell is a good choice to keep dampness out and block the wind. Even better if it has mesh venting in the armpits to allow for evaporation.
- Middle & top layer for light to moderate workouts: Your body won’t be generating as much ambient heat and you’ll feel it if temperatures are under 20° F. Choose a synthetic under layer (see above) with a lined parka or ski jacket and fleece-lined warm-up pants.
- Protect the extremities: Fragile tissues in the extremities – hands, feet, ears and all areas of the face – are especially vulnerable to frostbite. Cover these areas and avoid prolonged exposure when temperatures with wind chill get close to single digits. When choosing hat, gloves and socks, remember synthetic fabrics are best at keeping skin dry while wool and fleece are great for insulation. When shoveling, insulated and water-proof boots and gloves with good tread and grip, respectively, are a must.
- Know the current and predicted conditions and choose accordingly. It’s best to avoid early mornings and mid-to-late evenings since these tend to be when it’s darkest and coldest, increasing all risk factors for injury and exposure ailments. If these times can’t be avoided choose well-lit routes, wear reflective clothing and a light. Even in daylight, plenty of dangers exist when temperatures are below freezing. Know the temperature with wind chill and if any wind speed or precipitation changes are expected while you’ll be out. Unless your activity requires snow or ice, choose routes with the least amount of it. And, the colder and windier the conditions, the shorter your workout should be.
- Pick the roads more travelled. If you should take a spill off your bike or severely turn an ankle on your run in extremely cold conditions, a few extra minutes of waiting for help could put you at high risk of frostbite or hypothermia. Especially if you’re working out alone. Stick to well-travelled areas, have a charged cell phone with you, and be sure loved ones know your route and how long you plan to be out.
- Shoveling Tips:
- Proper form: Lift with your legs, not with your back or shoulders; switch hand positions regularly to avoid imbalanced muscle strengthening; don’t overload your shovel.
- Use the right shovel: Avoid one that’s too short or too heavy for you.
- Stretch: After shoveling stretch back, shoulders, chest, arms, abdominals, hip and thigh muscles.
- Re-Fuel & Re-Hydrate: Lean proteins and water are what’s needed for the muscles to recover.