Keep Your Heart Safe While Shoveling Snow
Every winter, snow shoveling sends many people to the hospital with heart attacks and other cardiac problems. Follow these tips for keeping your ticker safe while you shovel.
By Charlotte Libov
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Once upon a time, snow days rocked. They were all sledding, snow angels, and hot cocoa — until one day, suddenly, you reached shoveling age. At first, it wasn’t so bad. You could rack up few extra dollars clearing the neighbors’ driveways and sidewalks.
Fast-forward a few decades and snow-shoveling can be a chore, especially when you no longer have cash-hungry kids around the house. Not only is it hard work, it can be hard on your heart.
The connection between snow shoveling and heart attacks is no myth. “It’s absolutely for real, and it’s tragic,” says Harvey Kramer, MD, a cardiologist at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut and an assistant professor of medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, who has seen patients die after shoveling snow.
Researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, recently looked at the records of 500 patients who had visited the hospital for heart problems during the past two winter seasons. They found that 7 percent had experienced symptoms while shoveling snow. The researchers also noted that people who smoked and those whose relatives were diagnosed with heart disease at earlier-than-expected ages were at a higher risk for shoveling-associated heart disease symptoms. Overall, they recorded symptoms in more men than women.
How to Shovel Snow Safely
According to Dr. Kramer, people with heart disease or high risk for heart disease shouldn’t shovel snow at all. If you’re otherwise healthy, follow these tips for keeping your heart safe.
- Dress appropriately.Before you head out into the cold, dress warmly. Cover your body completely, even your face. One of the main reasons shoveling snow is so dangerous is the “cold pressor response,” says Kramer. It’s the body’s natural reaction when it thinks that it’s freezing — all your blood vessels constrict. The problem with shoveling snow, he says, is that your body may think that it’s freezing even though you’re bundled up because some of your skin may still be exposed. He suggests wearing a face mask, and even goggles.
- Warm up ahead of time.“When people do other types of exercise, they tend to warm up, but not when it comes to shoveling snow. They go out and start working like crazy because they want to get it over with, and in doing so, they put great strain on their heart,” says Kramer. How should you warm up? Anything you would do before a normal workout will do, followed by some stretching to prevent muscle injury. Keep in mind that using a snow blower doesn’t necessarily erase safety concerns. “People think that if they use a snow blower, they are safe,” says Kramer, “but running behind a snow blower still requires work, and there’s still that cold pressor response to deal with.”
- Take frequent breaks.“Shovel the snow at a reasonable clip, but take a break when you get tired,” Kramer says. Go inside, warm up, and drink plenty of water. Dehydration not only puts a strain on the heart, but it also increases the risk of life-threatening arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). Another snow-shoveling snow tip from Kramer: “Don’t drink alcohol,” Doing so raises blood pressure and dehydrates you.
- Use the right tools.“Shovels that are curved are easier on the back, and spraying the shovel with cooking oil makes the snow slide off more easily,” Kramer says.
- Use proper form.When your shovel is full of snow, empty it in the direction you’re facing. Avoid twisting, which can lead to back problems.
Kramer calls shoveling snow the perfect storm. “You’re putting extra strain on your heart and your blood vessels are constricted, so your heart is working harder, and you’re putting yourself at risk for a heart attack or a heartbeat irregularity that can lead to cardiac arrest,” he says. That’s why if you’ve suffered a heart attack or had a stent put in, or have any other kind of serious heart problem, it’s a safer bet to ask a family member, friend, or neighbor to take over the shoveling instead.
Video: Tai Chi Snow Shoveling: Technique, Mindset and Exercises to keep you SAFE!
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