Health Column: Battling with Old Man Winter

Before you reach for that snow shovel this winter, think first about protecting your back. When you do battle with Old Man Winter, or tackle any other kind of heavy lifting at home or on the job, do everything you can to reduce the chance of injury by strengthening your back.

Your best insurance for maintaining healthy back muscles is exercising and keeping your back muscles strong and flexible. It’s equally important to maintain a healthy weight or shed some pounds if you weigh too much. Maintain strong bones by making sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D every day. Visiting a chiropractor and massage therapist on a regular basis or receiving acupuncture is also important for stabilizing a healthy back or in the event you have already strained your back.

Snow shoveling is a repetitive activity that can cause muscle strain to the lower back and shoulders, especially if a person is out of condition. Snow shoveling is also heavy work, so it’s important to pay attention to how you lift.

You can save your back by making sure to shovel with proper alignment. When you’re bent over digging into a pile of heavy snow or hacking at ice, the hunched stance can lead to strain in the lower back. It takes only one shovelful of wet snow with your back in the wrong alignment, and the next thing you know, you’re in pain.

Here are some tips for avoiding back strain from snow shoveling:

• Lift smaller loads of snow, skimming off the top of the snow, rather than heavy shovelfuls. Take care to bend your knees as you would if you were sitting in a chair or the pose of a squat, and lift with your legs rather than with your back.

• Use a shovel with a handle that lets you keep your back straight while lifting. A short handle will cause you to bend more and a shovel that’s too long makes the weight at the end heavier.

• Because the spine can’t tolerate twisting as well as it can other movements, it’s important to avoid this movement as much as possible. Step in the direction in which you are throwing the snow. This will help avoid the “next-day back fatigue” experienced by people who shovel snow.

• Take frequent breaks while shoveling. Stand up straight and walk around periodically to extend the lower back. And very important — drink plenty of water. You are engaging in a vigorous exercise when shoveling.

You can help prevent and reduce back pain by strengthening your back and keeping it limber with some flexibility techniques. In addition, strengthening your legs, hips and shoulders can help improve your ability to squat, lift and carry items without overworking or injuring your back. Many know that they need to be more physically fit, but are unsure of what to do and how to do it properly. A certified fitness trainer can come to your rescue.

With proper precautions and the correct snow shoveling technique, injuries to the shoulders and lower back can often be avoided. Be kind to your back this winter, take your time and don’t do too much in one day.

Elyse Ray is a licensed massage therapist and fitness trainer specializing in muscle strengthening and flexibility training. She operates her own business in a private studio on Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead.