Canadian winters don’t just mean unbearably cold temperatures. It also means trudging through snow and ice, and all the chores that come with it. Shovelling snow, scraping ice off of windshields and scattering salt are all a part of the winter experience – and can lead to injury. 31 per cent of Canadians say that shovelling causes back and joint pain, according to the Association des chiropraticiens du Québec and slippery icy conditions send nearly 1,800 Canadians to the hospital every day.
Luckily, there are some easy-to-practice exercises you can do at home to improve your mobility, flexibility and strength that will help prevent these common wintertime injuries.
Traditionally done with barbells, deadlifts can also be done at home with hand weights, kettle weights, resistance bands, or even cans of beans held in each hand. Deadlifts engage the erector spinae muscle, which sits in the lower part of your back and helps keep you standing upright, says Alex Malone, lead fitness coach at the University of Toronto. These low back muscles are used when lifting something off the ground, such as when you’re shovelling snow. Building up to more repetitions can also train you to be able to lift – or shovel – for longer, Malone adds.
Dave Frost, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, adds that doing deadlifts can teach your body proper lifting positions – namely engaging your hips, glutes and core. People often hurt their back shovelling snow because they’re bending from their back and not their hips, he says.
To do a basic deadlift, start with your weights on the ground. Sit your hips back, bend your knees and lean your torso forward to maintain a straight back. Then, lift the weights up as you work toward a standing position, squeeze your glutes and then return to the beginning posture. Just remember to keep your knees in line with your hips and feet (when shovelling and doing deadlifts) to avoid falling inward.
Upward facing dog
A yoga staple, this exercise opens the chest and improves back mobility, says Jennifer Jakobi, the director of the Institute for Healthy Living and Chronic Disease Prevention at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan. Upward dog expands the range of motion for your back, preventing injuries from activities like shovelling snow, bending down to salt the sidewalk and even crouching down to tie your boots’ laces. “If you have a strong and flexible spine, you’re able to engage the muscles around the abdomen and those smaller muscles that support the spine to actually do their job,” she says.
Start by lying facedown on your stomach with your feet about hip-width apart. Push up with your palms, which should be next to your abdomen, with your fingers pointing toward the top of the mat. Then, lengthen your arms completely while lifting your head and chest (and your knees off the floor if you’re able). You should feel the back bend. Release, slowly returning to your original posture.
Straight leg raises
Walking around in snow bundled up can be challenging because our mobility is restricted, making falls more common. Stretching out your hip flexors, which is what we use when “walking or trying to lift your knees high up to go through a snowbank,” will improve mobility when navigating slippery terrain, Frost says.
Frost recommends doing straight leg raises to strengthen the muscles around the hips as well as the top of your thighs. To start, lie down with your back flat on the ground, bending one knee so the foot is on the floor while the other is laid out comfortably in front. Slowly lift the straight leg off the ground, ensuring that the leg stays straight by contracting your quadriceps (those muscles at the front of your thighs). Hold for three seconds and then lower the leg to the floor with control (as in, don’t let it drop). Switch sides and repeat.
Ankles are the first point of contact with the ground and poor ankle mobility can lead to poor balance and a less stable walking gait, Frost says.
One of the most basic ankle stretches just requires stairs or a low step stool. To begin, stand with both feet on the step with one foot close to the edge. Slowly drop the heel of that foot down with your toes pointing up – you’ll begin to feel the stretch in your Achilles’ tendon. Keep your knee straight and hold for five seconds. Lift the foot back to neutral, repeat and switch sides. Don’t forget to grab onto a wall to help support you.
Using Bosu balls
A major factor in falls is a lack of dynamic balance. When we practise balance, we often practise static balance: standing on one foot on an unmoving surface. But Jakobi says that the vast majority of falls happen when we’re in motion, which is where dynamic balance comes in.
She recommends standing on a Bosu ball (those half-yoga balls with a flat surface) or another uneven surface such as a pillow or a balled-up towel. Standing on an unstable surface forces you to find and maintain your centre of gravity while being reactive to the changes on the surface. This will help you to stay upright even in the most unsteady of circumstances – such as, say, on a slippery sidewalk.