Shoveling tips from our northern neighbors

December 06, 2003|By ROB KASPER

AS PART OF my new snow-shoveling regime, the first thing I did yesterday morning was to get back in bed.

I wanted to pull the warm covers over me and snooze, but instead I sprawled atop the blankets and stretched my back.

Stretching before shoveling is one of the things a smart shoveler does. That is what the Ontario Chiropractic Association recommends, a group that I think has something worthwhile to say about coping with winter.

First of all, being Canadians, they are familiar with snow. In Baltimore, snowfall is treated as a wondrous and dangerous event. In Canada, snowfall is a fact of winter life. Second, chiropractors treat people who have back pain, and according to a survey the Canadian group conducted last winter, the leading cause of winter back pain among their patients was improper snow-shoveling techniques. Last, the group has put out a list of tips describing the best way to get the snow off the pavement without putting a pain in your back.

The first of these recommendations is to warm up, or stretch before shoveling. Think of your body as a rubber band, Dean Wright, president of the chiropractors' group, told me in a telephone interview. If you yank a cold rubber band quickly, it might snap. But if you stretch it gradually, loosening it up with a few gentle exercises, it becomes more flexible.

The snow-shoveling warm-up does not have to last long, Wright said; just long enough to relax your back, shoulders and legs. This, he said, should keep you loose as a goose for about 45 minutes of shoveling.

So yesterday morning, instead of rushing outside to do battle with the first snowfall of the season, I lingered inside, flopping around in bed, pulling one knee at a time to my chest and holding it there for a few seconds. Later, down in the basement, I stretched my arms, holding my elbow over my head. This routine felt odd. But I reminded myself that professional football players - even kickers - warm up before going to work, so I continued. Instead of a rubber band, my body initially felt like a piece of dried spaghetti that could break at any moment. Eventually, it loosened up, becoming more "al dente."

Once outside, I reminded myself to "push, don't throw." Pushing a shovelful of snow is much easier on the lower back, Wright said, than picking the snow up and tossing it.

This advice was easy to follow when I was clearing off the front sidewalk. There, I was working with a level surface and had a convenient spot, the curb gutter, to dump the snow.

But out in the alley in back, where the terrain was uneven and the dumping spots few, I had to start tossing snow. Recalling another tip from Wright, I only threw straight stuff, no curves. You don't want to twist and turn when you throw snow, Wright said, because that could put "torque on your spine." He also mentioned something about stressing the "vertebral end plates." It hurt just hearing him say those words.

Wright said he recognizes that there comes a time, usually at the end of the driveway, that a shoveler has to throw snow. When you gotta throw, bend your knees, not your back, he said, and toss the load straight ahead. Otherwise, your vertebral end plates and other lumbar parts will not be happy.

Yesterday morning, I performed these maneuvers using a brand-new, ergonomically correct snow shovel. This shovel is made of lightweight polyethylene and has a bent shaft. The idea, I guess, is that if your snow shovel has a crooked spine, you won't end up with one yourself.

When using a bent-shaft shovel, you don't have to bend over. This works, Wright said, provided the shovel fits your height. A bent-shaft shovel that works well for a 6-foot-2 shoveler will be too big for someone a foot shorter, he said. Before buying such a shovel, you have to try it on, picking one up and seeing how it feels.

Because an average shovelful of snow weighs between 5 and 7 pounds, using a lightweight snow shovel matters, Wright said. "Each time you shovel, you are dealing with a repeated load and repeated stress," he said, so the lighter your load, the better. He also recommended stopping at least every 45 minutes and flexing your back.

Even though these newfangled lightweight shovels have been on the market for a while, I have been reluctant to buy one. Snow shoveling, I believed, was a primal art, best practiced with ancient tools, passed down from generation to generation. I have one of these shovels, a 20-year-old number I call "Old Red" in honor of its red metal blade. It is heavy, but it is also sturdy. It may not be ergonomically correct, but its blade gets right down to the pavement and makes short work of ice.

The other day, as I eyed a new bent-shaft polyethylene shovel at the neighborhood hardware store, I felt a pang of guilt, a feeling that I was being disloyal to Old Red. Then I remembered how stiff I was last winter after shoveling out the alley, and I quickly welcomed this crooked newcomer into our family of snow shovels.

The new shovel can push most of the snow; the old metal shovel can mop up, clearing ice off the pavement.

With a team of shovels and tips from the Canadian chiropractors, I am ready for more snow - which, according to the forecast, should arrive today.

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