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Shoveling snow can be a real pain — in fact, a 2011 American Journal of Emergency Medicine study shows the task sends more than 11,000 people to the hospital each year.

Back injuries and heart problems are among the most common issues, with slips and falls causing their fair share of bumps, bruises and broken bones, to boot. But with a little planning and a lot of common sense, you can keep yourself safe while removing snow this winter.

Before you begin, consider whether you ought to be shoveling at all. If you have certain risk factors — advanced age, history of back or heart problems or a sedentary lifestyle among them — consider using a snow blower or hiring (or volunteering) out the snow removal task. Check with your primary care provider, and above all err on the side of caution, if you question your fitness to shovel.

You’ll be in better shape to shovel if you’re in better shape overall, and that means maintaining a year-round active lifestyle. Regular cardiovascular exercise keeps your heart in good shape, and strength training helps you maintain a strong core and other muscle groups. This doesn’t have to be fancy or strenuous – in fact, walking is one of the best exercises there is.

Even if you’re in good shape, you’ll want to warm up before heading out in the cold. Consider some light aerobic exercise to get the blood flowing, and stretch those muscles. This will help protect both your back and your heart as you shovel. Dress in layers to ensure you stay warm and can adjust your temperature as needed as the activity continues. And make sure you have proper non-slip footwear to avoid taking a painful spill.

Choosing your shovel wisely can make a big difference when it comes to your back. Consider an ergonomic model that helps you stay more upright, or look for an adjustable handle that can help ease stress on the lower back. Stick to that classic advice, “lift with your legs, not your back,” and try to push the snow instead of lifting it. Don’t twist your back while shoveling, and make sure you don’t try to move too much snow at once. When you’re done, a hot water bottle or hot bath can help ease achy muscles and prevent next-day soreness.

A back injury is no joke, but a heart attack can be deadly — and there are some important additional tips to make sure you’re shoveling safely. Be sure to stay hydrated, drinking water before, during and after you head outside. Start slow, pace yourself and take breaks as needed, especially if you feel fatigued. Finally, know the signs of a heart attack and call 9-1-1 immediately if you experience any of them. Warning signs include chest pain/discomfort, discomfort in the arms, back, neck or jaw; shortness of breath; and cold sweat with nausea or lightheadedness. Your pride is not worth your life. When in doubt, make the call.

Snow might be inevitable this time of year, but shoveling-related health problems don’t have to be. Be smart, stay safe and enjoy the season.

Lisa Cook is a certified family nurse practitioner at Bellin Health, Marinette.