Finding Nemo: Is Shoveling Really Exercise?

When I was a child my Aunt Lorraine gave me a pet turtle, which my creative twin and I named Shelly.  They’re the armored cars of the reptile kingdom, and are endowed with greater wisdom and swagger than their unshelled friends.  When the young Al Gore invented the internet, he didn’t plan that I’d be able to meet other turtlephiles, like the Zombie Turtle Kid or Pixar’s favorite Fish, Nemo.

Am I the only one that found it ironical that The National Storm Naming Committee* decided to name the worst snow in recent years after Pixar’s precocious Premnas?  I mean, naming a storm after a beloved character sends mixed messages to children, as they prepare to go frolicking in the snow while their parents are doing this:

Mother Nature defaulted on her snow debt, and I woke up to about a foot of snow on Saturday morning, with areas of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts receiving up to 31″ of the stuff.  The North East began to dig itself out on Sunday morning, and when once the novelty of snow wore off, we switched to complain-about-everything-mode, focusing on the extremely arduous task of clearing snow.  As I prepared to go outside, I began to wonder:

Is shoveling snow real exercise?

If I look at comments and posts in my Facebook and Tweeter feeds, then most people seem to consider shoveling relatively intense exercise.  I turned to Fitocracy

to verify the legilimency legitimacy of shoveling as exercise, and sure enough, it’s track-able.  We had a foot of snow on the property, and a generous neighbor swung by before I got outside to snow-blow portions of the drive way.  I tracked an hour and a half of moderate level shoveling, and was awarded a measly 336 points:

Screen Shot 2013-02-11 at 7.20.18 AM

Considering how Fitocracy awards points for other activities, this is right on board with what I expected, but I’m still surprised when people refer to shoveling as their workout for the day.  For the record, I don’t consider shoveling to be exercise.  It is physical activity, but not a workout.  There’s a difference.

When you workout, or train, or lift, you’re there for a health or performance related reason.  Your goal may be to feel better, pick up heavy shit, build muscle, burn fat, or reduce injury risk.  Maybe you’re trying to do all three.  We have specific goals, and our methods of exercise should help us reach these goals.  This is why people lift heavy weights, learn new exercises, run sprints, go to yoga classes, practice yoga; because they have distinct physical and mental benefits which we’re seeking.  The biggest benefit I can see from shoveling is making travel outside more convenient.

Shoveling is difficult and taxing, but that doesn’t make it a workout.  Yes, there are some exceptions.  If you shovel for 3 hours, or 8 hours, I’d expect you to be pretty damn exhausted.  You might want to chalk that day up as an off day, and resume your regular training the next morning.  However, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to track measurable improvements in health and fitness from shoveling snow.  I’ll venture to say that for most people, it’s actually not the best idea.

As a nation, we’re sedentary, overweight, and have problems with back pain.  We’re losing our education ranking, currently ranked 17th in the world.  It’s also relatively infrequent that most people use a shovel.  It’s probably only a few times a year on average.  This is not a recipe for quality shoveling.

Shoveling requires coordination.  You’re seldom balanced, often with an offset stance, always with an asymmetrical load, and you’re lifting and shifting variable loads.  Sometimes, you’re standing on ice.  The closest “exercise” activity to that would be this:


I made that one GIF just for you, and doesn’t it look absolutely ridiculous?  Most folks can instinctively see that exercise and tell you that it’s going to be a poor time investment.  If you were in a fitness center or working with a trainer and they said, “Alright, we’re going to do some drills to make shoveling easier, you’d want to hit them with the ViPR, or you’d ask for a refund.

As an inactive nation, an hour of that is going to be pretty rigorous, and 8 hours of it is going to be brutal.  We’re overweight, which can make moving well more difficult, and since we’re bad at math and science, we’re not going to understand lever arms and movement patterns as well as our international friends who better understand trigonometry and biomechanics.  (International readers, go you.  Keep up the good work.)

I’m a huge fan of asymmetrical exercises through multiple planes of movement.  Some of them are simple, like the “Shovel Deadlift”:

You can also do shoveling patterns with the ViPR trainer you saw above:

The Ultimate Sandbag is also a viable option, and you can adjust the load as well:

Are those all viable options to train the shoveling pattern?  You bet they are, but are you really going to go into the gym and practice your shoveling?  I highly doubt it.  Is it more likely that you’re going to go practice deadlifting and related ‘big’ movements?  Much more likely.

You shouldn’t be training to shovel, but your training should make activities like shoveling easier.  The loads you can (and should) be lifting in the gym are much heavier than the amount of snow that you can fit onto a shovel.  Even with a simple body weight deadlift, you’re lifting far more than you’ll fit onto a shovel, unless you end up with this one:

20110801 Elliot on giant shovel (2)

Rather than qualifying snow shoveling as an exercise, let’s stop kidding ourselves.  It’s demanding physical activity, and it may be exhausting.  It’s not something that you can do on a regular basis and measure fitness improvements, so it’s best that you’re training so that shoveling is easier and safer for you.

Nemo dumped a lot of snow on us this time, and there are some people who are still clearing snow.  I’ll bet that those who regularly exercise and include heavy lifting are finding it much easier than those who are only off the sofa to shovel.  If you’re struggling with soreness, or exhaustion after a short period of shoveling, maybe some strength improvements and/or general physical preparedness  (GPP) are in order.  However, it’s totally an acceptable form of exercise if you use Fat Gripz:


* the NSNC is not real.  I made them up.

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