Every season brings unique activities that require us to perform some physical activity we may not want to do but have no choice. In the winter, shoveling snow comes to mind (at least in some parts of the country) while spring, summer, and fall may include yard clean up, mowing, and raking. All of these seasonal activities are, “…I have to..” activities of daily living (ADLs), rather than ADLs we want to do. Let’s talk about shoveling snow. Of course, if snow is not an issue based on where you live, this information can also be applied to gardening, digging a hole, or some other yard-related shoveling activity.
First, a few facts that help us appreciate why back pain is so common when we shovel: 1. When we bend over, approximately 2/3rds of our body weight is being lifted in addition to what we’re lifting. Hence, a 180 pound (~80 kg) person has to lift 120 lbs (~54 kg) of body weight every time he or she bends over. 2. A 5 lbs weight (~2.25 kg) can place 50 lbs (22.5 kg) of load on your back when it’s held in front of you at the end of a shovel! 3) Our legs are much stronger than our back and arms. If a person can bench press 300 lbs (~136 kg), they can usually leg press 500 lbs (~236 k) – almost 2x more weight. Yet, most of us use our arms, not our legs, when shoveling. 4) Most of us bend over using poor technique, lift the shovel with the arms and back (not the legs), and rapidly extend and twist the back when we throw the substance from the shovel! 5) Then, this faulty action is repeated many, many times, and on top of that, it is not something we’re used to doing and hence, we’re not physically adapted or “in shape” for shoveling. With all of these “truths,” it’s no wonder why we often can barely move after an hour of shoveling! So what can we do about it?
I suppose hiring the neighborhood kid (or persuading your own kid) to do the shoveling makes the most sense but let’s say you have to do it yourself… We can’t change the fact that most of our body’s weight lies above our waist so that one we’re stuck with and we’re not going to lose excess weight in time before shoveling. But, we can certainly put less material on the shovel so the load on our back is less. It’s important to squat down using your strong leg muscles while keeping your back as vertical/straight as possible- DO NOT BEND OVER. Try sticking out your fanny (to keep an inward curve in your back), lift the shovel / load of material straight up with your legs, maintaining that arched back / butt out position. Keep your arms / elbows straight and walk the shovel load over to the dumping location – DON’T try and throw the load a distance by twisting your body. Take multiple breaks and switch sides so you don’t “beat up” the same muscle groups repeatedly.
If you do hurt your back – using an analogy of a cut on your skin –avoid picking at the cut so it can heal. If your back hurts after shoveling, use ice/rest followed by gentle stretching and modified activities – DON’T go back out and shovel (ie, don’t pick at your cut!). Some wise considerations for shoveling include warming up before starting, staying “in shape” by exercising throughout the year, maintaining a good nutritious diet, and getting enough sleep.
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