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The scoop about snow shoveling

Every winter people hurt themselves shoveling snow. Injuries range from minor aches and pulled muscles to fatal heart attacks.

What people often fail to realize is that shoveling is more than just a household chore. When you start shoveling snow it's like picking up weights.

Snow shoveling is a weight-lifting exercise that raises your heart rate and blood pressure. The good news is that 15 minutes of shoveling counts as moderate physical activity, according to the Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health.

The bad news is that optimistic shovelers sometimes take on more than they can handle. So instead of cashing in on the physical activity benefits of shoveling, their back and heart pay for it in the end.

Snow shoveling "mishaps," however, don't just happen. They are predictable and preventable. There are common mistakes that shovelers make. With the right solution, your back and heart will be protected.

The first mistake is picking the wrong type of shovel. Choose a shovel that is ergonomically correct - one with a curved handle. These shovels help keep your back straighter, reducing spinal stress.

Consider a shovel with a light weight plastic blade versus a metal one. Also, a smaller blade may be a better option. You will not be able to shovel as much per load, but it will weigh less, ultimately putting less strain on your back.

Don't be in a hurry to get outside and get the job done. Stretch thoroughly, as warm muscles work better. Stretch your hamstrings, back and your shoulders. Then dress as you would for any outdoor activity - in removable layers, so you can remove a layer as needed. Take extra precautions to keep hands and feet warm.

Technique is very important. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons suggests the following proper technique.

Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart to maintain balance. Try to keep the shovel close to your body. Keep one hand close to the shovel blade for better leverage.

Bend at the knees, not the waist or back. Keep your back straight as you move from the squat position to the upright position. Tighten your stomach muscles as you lift the snow. Lift with your legs, not your back. Do not twist your body.

Go forward with the snow and dump it in front of you. If you need to move the snow to the side, move your feet, do not twist!

Don't forget to stretch gently when you're done, rest and remain hydrated. Most importantly, listen to your body. At any time during shoveling if you feel exhaustion or pain, STOP!

Also remember that fresh snow is lighter in weight, so clear snow as soon as it has fallen. Wet snow is very heavy. One shovelful can weigh 20 pounds or more!