Shoveling Snow: How to Lower Your Risk of Having a Heart Attack

Falling snowflakes and white landscapes can be magical, but snow accumulations also present a serious health hazard. Many people, especially older men, face an increased risk of a heart attack or sudden cardiac death from shoveling heavy snow, according to the American Heart Association. Shoveling snow can tax the heart as much as participating in high-intensity sports like marathons, but it’s often done by people who do not exercise regularly.

Let’s take a closer look at the health risks posed by shoveling snow, as well as some tips on how to reduce the risks.

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What Are the Risks?

Removing snow from your driveway and sidewalk may seem like a routine wintertime task. However, about 100 people in the U.S. die each year during or soon after engaging in snow removal. Shoveling hundreds of pounds of snow or pushing a heavy snowblower puts a tremendous strain on the heart. The lengthy, strenuous effort and cold temperatures combine to create a perfect storm that challenges the heart. Frigid air constricts the arteries, including the ones that supply blood to the heart, potentially causing blood pressure to spike and making blood clots more likely to form.

An American Heart Association study found that only two minutes of snow shoveling caused the participants’ heart rates to exceed the maximum prescribed limit for aerobic exercise testing. A recent Canadian study suggests that both the quantity of snow and the duration of a snowfall are associated with a greater risk of hospital admission and death due to a heart attack.

People who exercise more than 5 days per week are the least likely to suffer a heart attack while shoveling snow or using a snowblower. The less physically active you are, the more likely you are to have a heart attack in the hour after snow removal.

Snow removal is particularly dangerous for people who have cardiovascular risks, including:

  • Obesity
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking (current or in the past)
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes

Doctors recommend that people who have any of these risks — as well as those who have had bypass surgery or coronary angioplasty — should avoid shoveling snow or using snowblowers.

What Are the Signs of a Heart Attack?

Heart attacks occur when a blot clot forms inside an artery that supplies blood to the heart. A clot can completely block blood flow to part of the heart, which causes heart muscle cells to shut down and die. If you are removing snow, be sure to stay within your physical limits and know how to recognize when you’re overexerting.

The early warning signs of a heart attack include:

  • Mild pain in the chest, neck, shoulders, left arm, or back
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
  • Nausea

If you notice any of these signs, stop shoveling.

More serious symptoms to watch out for during snow removal include:

  • intense chest pain, which may feel like a squeezing or tightness in your chest
  • feeling too dizzy to stand
  • pain that radiates down one arm or the other
  • shortness of breath

If you experience any of these symptoms and they don’t subside shortly, call 911 or seek medical care immediately.

Tips to Reduce the Health Risks of Snow Removal

If you decide to remove snow, keep these heart-smart tips in mind before you pick up a shovel or start up your snowblower:

  • Dress appropriately to ensure that your body stays warm.
  • Snow removal requires the same level of exertion as high-intensity sports, so warm up your muscles before starting.
  • Push the snow instead of lifting and tossing it, whenever possible.
  • Instead of shoveling heavy loads, pick up light loads only, particularly when the snow is slushy.
  • Divide the work into segments and tackle each segment separately, taking ample breaks in between.
  • When taking a break, go inside and warm up before resuming.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Don’t feel obligated to clear off all of the snow. After a heavy snow, clear small paths to ensure pedestrians can safely walk on the sidewalks and that your car can enter and exit your driveway. Then tackle the remainder of the snow later in the day or on another day.
  • Pay attention to how you feel while removing snow. If your heart starts racing, your chest starts hurting, you feel lightheaded, or you experience any of the other signs and symptoms mentioned above, stop shoveling. If these symptoms persist, call 911. Remain vigilant for signs and symptoms for an hour after your stop working.

If you have any cardiovascular risk factors, the safest course of action is to avoid shoveling or snowblowing. Hire a professional snow-removal service for the season or pay a neighborhood teen to do the job.

“Heart Club is great. I take my BP  every morning and share it with my doctor. Thanks to the developers of this app.” – Ingrid B. Download FREE on the Apple App Store and Google Play

Heart Health and Physical Activity

If you want to reduce the risks of snow removal, learn more about heart health during cold weather. If you want to be able to participate in rigorous physical activities like snow shoveling, you can minimize the risks of a heart attack by making healthy lifestyle choices. That includes eating a heart-healthy diet and getting regular exercise. Walking is a good way for older adults to be more active. One way to monitor the progress of your walking routine is by keeping track of how many steps you take each day. Heart Club, our free cardiologist-designed app includes a step counter to track your distance. It also enables you to record your blood pressure and gives you access to important medical information — all on your phone.

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