Along with the beautiful landscapes that winter brings comes the tedious, and frequently dangerous task of shoveling snow off of walkways, driveways, and sidewalks. While snow shoveling is important in lowering the risk of slip-and-falls outside your home, it must be recognized as also increasing your health risks by straining your heart.
According to the BBC, 100 people in the US die from heart attacks while snow shoveling every year. In fact, after the record snowfall in Chicago last year, 10 people died from the heart strain of shoveling the wet, heavy snow.
We’ve thoroughly explored the risks that shoveling poses to your heart health, and also touched on some specific advice on how to lower those risks. Here, we are taking a deep dive into three of the most important things to keep in mind when shoveling snow, and the direct way they can counteract some of the primary health risks your heart might be facing.The importance of lifting slowly...Shoveling snow poses a certain conundrum. On the one hand, 6am-10am is a dangerous time to shovel as, during the morning hours, circadian fluctuations make us more vulnerable to heart attacks. However, you also shouldn’t wait too long after the snow falls to start shoveling; the longer snow sits on the ground, the more it compacts, making it denser and requiring more exertion to remove, which places increased stress on the heart. To handle this paradox, you can indeed wait a little longer to shovel, but make sure that you check the snow’s density before you start shoveling. If the snow is heavy, lifting small manageable loads of snow is crucial, so that you don’t overexert your heart. Using a smaller shovel can help ensure that you’re not lifting too much at a time.
- The importance of bundling up...Exposure to the cold winter air causes more than just hypothermia. Cold air causes the arteries to constrict and decrease blood supply, as well as increases the blood’s propensity for clotting. The act of shoveling on its own causes enough strain on the heart, and the weather conditions in which you perform it just exacerbates the problem. It’s therefore highly recommended to wear a face mask or scarf that covers the mouth, to limit the inhalation of cold air, and wear warm, layered clothing to improve circulation and maintain body temperature overall.
- The importance of warming up...This doesn’t just apply to a warm cup of cocoa after completing your snow removal efforts. Many people don’t realize just how rigorous an exercise snow shoveling can be. But the reality is that nearly all aspects of snow shoveling, from standing to lifting to breathing, increases your blood pressure significantly. The arm work involved in shoveling, specifically raising your arms high when thrusting the snow, increases blood pressure drastically. At the same time, your leg muscles are performing isometric work, meaning that you produce a lot of tension, but your muscles don’t move your joints, further raising blood pressure. Also, shovelers naturally perform the Valsalva maneuver, which is a moderately forceful attempted exhalation against a closed airway, essentially generating a lot of chest pressure without breathing out. This too increases blood pressure. And as blood pressure rises, so does the degree to which the heart needs to work. It’s therefore imperative to ease your body into this strenuous work by warming up your muscles and heart gradually. Similarly, move as slowly as necessary, and don’t complete the entire job at once, but rather ease into the work, so that your heart can too.
Understand the risks that shoveling poses to your heart health early so you can take steps like those listed above before it’s too late. Krista Dowell, a resident of Halifax Canada, said she and her loved ones started shoveling snow slower and taking more breaks after a friend of hers died from shoveling snow. It’s a terrible reminder of the importance of maintaining heart health, but it is a crucial one to keep in mind during the winter months.