Snow Shoveling and Your Heart Health

If you're like a lot of people, you have one of two reactions when you wake up to a foot or more of snowfall. Either you're excited and uplifted by this beautiful coating of winter's glory that's covered your world, or your back immediately starts hurting because you know someone has to shovel all that winter splendor.

Shoveling snow: The once-a-year exercise

According to Harvard Medical School's "Harvard Health Publications," snow shoveling is a recognized trigger for heart attacks. Here's the connection: Those who go out to shovel often are couch potatoes who do little if any significant physical activity the rest of the year. However, when it snows they’ll pick up a shovel and start moving hundreds of pounds of snow from their driveway, walkway and steps.  Or they’ll pick up a snow blower, which is just as bad because these can be quite heavy. Then, factor in the cold weather, which is known to raise blood pressure, interfere with the blood flow to portions of the heart, and make the blood more likely to clot. In short, it’s the “perfect storm” for a heart attack.  

Men are the majority

In February 2017, U.S. News reported on a study done in Quebec between 1981 and 2014 in which investigators looked at data related to heart attacks during the months of November through April. The investigators found that men made up about 60 percent of the admissions to hospitals and deaths from heart attack, and noted that this link between the appearance of snow and the incidence of heart attacks was not found in women.

The reason for this is obvious: men are the ones more likely to be out shoveling snow. But which men?  Budding, prime-of-life teens and young-adults are at a lower risk simply because they are more likely to be regularly active. However, middle-aged men have more of a penchant for kicking back in the recliner, and men with known heart disease or a history of previous heart attacks are at even higher risk than their fellow recliner-loving males. As men age into their mid-50s or older, they are four times more likely to suffer a heart-related medical emergency while shoveling snow.

The snow must go

So, what's a man to do when he knows the snow must go?  Here are a few steps he should take to mitigate the risks of heart problems while clearing the winter wonderland from the driveway:

  • First of all, remember that shoveling snow is strenuous work. It makes a full-throttle treadmill mile look like nothing more than a trip to the kitchen for another beer
  • Do some warm-up exercises and stretches before you get started
  • Clear the snow in stages. Shovel a bit, rest a bit, shovel some more, rest some more. In other words, pace yourself
  • Don't try to shovel it all in one scoop. Do it in many lighter scoops instead of a few really piled up, heavy loads
  • Take frequent breaks and have a drink of water while you rest
  • You don't have to clear all that white stuff away, just what’s necessary. The rest will eventually melt
  • If you begin experiencing chest pains, get lightheaded or short of breath, or your heart starts racing, go inside immediately and call 911
  • Best solution: hire the neighbor's teenage son to clear the snow

Be realistic

If you're physically fit with no medical issues, go ahead and tackle that snowfall. If, however, you have heart issues and lead a mostly sedentary life, be mindful of the risks if you decide the snow must go.

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