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Prairie Fare: Shoveling Snow Counts as Physical Activity

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist, NDSU Extension Service

As I was shoveling the towering heap of snow left at the end of our driveway by a snow plow the other day, I decided that we Midwesterners have to be pretty tough to survive. After all, where else do you move "snow mountains" and experience a 130-degree temperature range within just a few months?

Let’s look on the bright side. The good news is that 15 minutes of snow shoveling counts as moderate physical activity according to the 1996 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health. We all should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity of some kind on most days of the week. Brisk walking and social dancing are other ways to fit in moderate physical activity during cold winter months.

The bad news is that researchers have reported an increase in the number of fatal heart attacks among snow shovelers after heavy snowfalls. This rise may be due to the sudden demand that shoveling places on an individual's heart. Snow shoveling may cause a quick increase in heart rate and blood pressure. One study determined that after only two minutes of shoveling, sedentary mens' heart rates rose to levels higher than those normally recommended during aerobic exercise. That’s a good reason to have a check-up before winter.

Shoveling may be a vigorous activity even for healthy college-aged students. A study performed by researchers at North Dakota State University determined that, based on heart rate, shoveling was a moderately intense activity for college-aged subjects most of the time but was vigorous activity during about one-third of their shoveling time of 14 minutes.

Shoveling can be made more difficult by the weather. Cold air makes it harder to work and breathe, which adds some extra strain on the body. There also is the risk for hypothermia, a decrease in body temperature, if we are not dressed correctly for the weather conditions.

Should you rush out and buy a snow blower? Not necessarily. Not everyone who shovels snow is going to have a heart attack. Snow shoveling can be good exercise when performed correctly and with safety in mind. Be heart-healthy and back-friendly while shoveling this winter with these tips:

  • If you are inactive and have a history of heart trouble, talk to your doctor before you take on the task of shoveling snow.
  • Avoid caffeine or nicotine before beginning. These are stimulants, which may increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to constrict, placing extra stress on the heart.
  • Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is just as big an issue in cold winter months as it is in the summer.
  • Dress in several layers so you can remove a layer as needed.
  • Warm up your muscles before shoveling, by walking for a few minutes or marching in place. Stretch the muscles in your arms and legs, because warm muscles will work more efficiently and be less likely to be injured.
  • Pick the right shovel for you. A smaller blade will require you to lift less snow, putting less strain on your body.
  • Begin shoveling slowly to avoid placing a sudden demand on your heart. Pace yourself and take breaks as needed.
  • Protect your back from injury by lifting correctly.
  • Stand with your feet about hip width for balance and keep the shovel close to your body. Bend from the knees (not the back) and tighten your stomach muscles as you lift the snow. Avoid twisting movements. If you need to move the snow to one side, reposition your feet to face the direction the snow will be going.
  • Most importantly — listen to your body. Stop if you feel pain!

Here’s a tasty treat to warm you up after shoveling.

Hot Cocoa Mix

1 cup powdered nondairy coffee creamer
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1/4 cup mint chocolate chips
1/2 cup miniature marshmallows

Combine all ingredients; store in an airtight container. Makes 2 1/3 cups mix or about 7 servings. To prepare, add 2/3 cup boiling water to 1/3 cup Hot Cocoa Mix. Each serving contains 190 calories, 7 grams fat and 32 grams carbohydrate.

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