The joy of shoveling

Posted: Friday, December 18, 2009

While shoveling snow off my deck and driveway this week, I got to thinking about the risks.

I could strain my back. A shovelful of wet snow can weigh 16 pounds. Lift that 125 times, and you've lifted a ton.

I could slip and fall. Maybe break bones. I could be there until someone chanced to see me, either frozen stiff or flopping like a beached beluga.

I could have a heart attack. Who would notice? I can see the Clarion story: "Sterling man found dead in driveway. Troopers say he had been there for some time, and small animals had been feeding on his carcass. They hope dental records will establish his identity."

Shoveling snow can be serious exercise, especially when the snow is wet and heavy. If you do an aerobic exercise for 20 minutes every day, you're probably in good enough shape for shoveling. But if your only exercise is thumbing the buttons on the controller of an XBox 360, shoveling snow might give you a rude surprise. People who study such things found that just two minutes of shoveling would raise the heart rates of physically inactive men higher than rates usually recommended for aerobic exercise.

Due to a handicap I've had since birth, acute lazyitis, I detest exercise for its own sake. I take my aerobic exercise only when I must. In early spring, splitting and stacking firewood makes my pump go faster. In summer, carrying a load of fish and gear up a boat ramp at low tide starts me huffing and puffing. And so on.

I've never thought of myself as a risk-taker, but statistics show that I am one. The risk of a heart attack is greater if you:

* Have a history of heart disease;

* Have high blood pressure;

* High cholesterol levels;

* Are a smoker;

* Lead a sedentary lifestyle; or

* Have previously had a heart attack

My blood pressure and cholesterol levels are controlled by drugs. I don't smoke now, but I did until the mid-1980s, and I have a fairly sedentary lifestyle. Good genes may be the only reason I haven't had a heart attack.

But enough about me. Shoveling snow can be a good way to get outdoors and to get some exercise. Some tips from the experts on safe and proper shoveling:

* Ask your doctor if you're up to it.

* After you wake up, give yourself a couple of hours to stretch and move around before starting to shovel, and avoid stimulants that could increase your heart rate.

* Stay hydrated by drinking water before, during and after shoveling.

* Dress in layers, so you can peel them off as you become warmer.

* Wear "ice walkers," those cleats that keep your feet from sliding.

* Use a light-weight shovel. Shovels with a bend in the handle are easier on the back.

* Whenever possible, push snow instead of lifting it. Some tools are made specifically for pushing.

* When you must lift, use your legs, not your back, and don't lift more than feels comfortable.

* Pace yourself and rest often.

As a senior citizen, other safeguards occur to me. Have someone check on you from time to time. Keep a cell phone in your pocket. If you have heart-attack symptoms, don't hesitate to call 911.

Finally, hire a neighborhood teenager to do your shoveling. After all, kids need exercise, too.

Les Palmer lives and shovels in Sterling.

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