When your driveway is covered in snow this winter, your first thought may be to dig yourself out. But before you grab the shovel, your second thought should be are you physically ready? Dr. Susan Wainwright, vice chair of the Department of Physical Therapy at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, warns that shoveling snow is an extremely strenuous activity and without the proper preparation, it can cause serious injury.

“If you’re not a regular exerciser or you’re in poor physical shape, your body won’t be prepared for the stress of shoveling snow and you increase your chances of sustaining muscle pulls, back injuries, and strains,” said Dr. Wainwright. “Snow shoveling can also strain the heart and cause potentially life threatening injuries, such as a heart attack.”

To avoid injuries this winter, Dr. Wainwright recommends taking several precautions:
Do a full warm-up: It’s key to warm-up by jogging in place or running up stairs and stretch before engaging in any physical activity, including snow shoveling.
Purchase an ergonomically correct shovel: Ergonomically correct shovels are typically much lighter than normal shovels and have a contoured handle that is designed to reduce or eliminate bending and decrease lifting.
Use proper shoveling technique: Push the snow instead of lifting it and be sure not to overload the shovel. Never use your back to lift snow! If you have to lift, bend your knees and lift with your legs, and avoid twisting or throwing snow over your shoulder.
Take breaks: Take a break every 15 minutes to stand up straight, walk around, and drink water to avoid dehydration and overheating.
Listen to your body: Pay attention to your body’s signals, such as pains, shortness of breath, or chest discomfort.

Dr. Wainwright also suggests that for health reasons, some people simply shouldn’t partake in snow shoveling. She recommends that men and women above the age of 45, especially those who are not physically active or have a history of a heart condition, have a younger person do the shoveling or pay someone else to do it.

“The heart is a muscle just like any other muscle in your body and when it gets strained, it shuts down because it can’t handle the increased load,” said Dr. Wainwright. “Older adults who aren’t active tax their cardiovascular system when they start to shovel and this often results in heart attacks. Snow shoveling doesn’t have to be back breaking work, but we have to remember that it is hard work and we need to take precautions to avoid injury.”