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The simple – and complicated – task of shoveling snow

Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Seifridsberger shovels knee-deep snow to build a simulated hasty firing position during training exercise Ready Force Breach at Fort Drum, New York. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Andrew Carroll) Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Seifridsberger shovels knee-deep snow to build a simulated hasty firing position during training exercise Ready Force Breach at Fort Drum, New York. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Andrew Carroll)

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Mother Nature has spoken and the winter storm has arrived. Now it’s time for the hard part: clearing a driveway or sidewalk covered in snow. Depending on the temperature and amount of snow to be moved, such a task can be daunting, and without proper precautions, painful as well. There are, however, ways to clear snow safely.

According to Army Col. Cynthia Perry, a physician at Guthrie Ambulatory Health Clinic in Fort Drum, New York, an area accustomed to harsh, snowy winters, the most important consideration when preparing to shovel snow is dressing properly for the weather. Layers of clothing for warmth, non-skid shoes or boots to help prevent falls, and gloves to protect hands and fingers, are all part of the equation.

“Ensure you’re wearing layers that can be removed or loosened, if needed,” said Perry. “Cold injury to extremities makes us less stable, certainly less dexterous, and hampers coordination of fingers and feet, creating an environment for slips, trips, and falls.” Perry also advised wearing bright colors for visibility and making sure to tell someone that you will be outdoors shoveling to ensure if a mishap occurs, help is nearby.

“Snow shoveling is akin to a vigorous aerobic workout, so a person’s overall health is key to preventing injuries,” said Army Lt. Col. Michael S. Crowell, chief, Physical Therapy, Keller Army Community Hospital and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “Someone in good physical health year-round is going to have an easier time shoveling than someone who is in poor health or not a regular exerciser.”

Snow shoveling injuries can span a wide spectrum, from the nuisance of a sore back or shoulder to a life-threatening cardiac event.

“Many people’s bodies are unaccustomed to the physical exertion required to shovel snow,” said Perry, ‘but those with heart disease risk factors, such as uncontrolled blood pressure, or people who smoke have to be extra careful.” Perry suggested that trying to carry on a conversation while shoveling snow is an effective way to check exertion level. “If you find yourself out of breath, take a break.”

According to Crowell, another group can be vulnerable to cardiac or musculoskeletal snow-shoveling injuries. “Youth doesn’t make you invincible to injury,” he said. “I’ve treated young soldiers with wrist or collarbone fractures or other injuries that could be prevented with some common sense.”

The body’s ability to adjust to cold weather is another important injury risk, especially for those unaccustomed to such climates. “This is especially true for members of the military who often deploy to a variety of locations and climates,” says Crowell. “Even learning to walk on snow and ice is a skill.”

Some additional expert tips: Try not to scoop the snow; push it instead. Break shoveling into multiple short segments to minimize exposure to the cold and to give the body time to rest and recover. Or perhaps the best option of all: find a willing helper to do the shoveling for you.

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