Why You Should Think Twice Before Shoveling Snow

How you can protect yourself against a heart attack in cold weather snow shoveling

Winter is the prime time for heart attacks, especially around the holidays and during the first couple of months of the new year. Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich.

The 2022 Old Farmer’s Almanac is warning its readers to prepare for a “Season of Shivers”, saying this winter will be one of the longest and coldest that we’ve seen in years and punctuated by below average, bone-chilling temperatures across much of the United States. Meteorologists are also warning that a “cold train” weather pattern boosted by a strong Polar Vortex over eastern Canada is coming to the United States in the second half of January.

With this gloomy super-cold winter weather forecasted (and throw in the uncertainty with erratic weather patterns brought on by the effects of global warming due to climate change) we can probably reasonably expect a lot more snow falling on the ground, and in our driveways and walkways. And unfortunately, someone is going to have to shovel all that snow.

Shoveling snow can actually be good exercise if you do it correctly, but taking on more than you think your body can handle or ignoring warning signs that you need to take a break can be dangerous, especially if you are middle-aged (40’s-60’s) or have underlying conditions, such as cardiovascular issues or even diabetes.

Shoveling snow can be fun and good exercise when done it correctly, but don't ignore warning signs if you need to take a break
Shoveling snow can be fun and good exercise when done it correctly, but don't ignore warning signs if you need to take a break. Photo by Stacey Kennedy.

Are You at Risk of Suffering a Heart Attack from Shoveling Snow?

Winter, especially around the holidays and during the first couple of months of the new year, is the prime time for heart attacks. It’s theorized that if you are not dressed warm enough when outside in cold weather your body’s core temperature will be lower, and the body’s natural response is for your arteries to vasoconstrict, or to narrow. If you already have narrowing or blockage of the arteries it will interfere with normal blood flow, which is basically the definition of a heart attack.

Another main cause for heart attacks in cold weather is ruptured plaque brought on by exertional, heavy types of work that isn’t gradual, like shoveling snow. Middle-aged people in their 40s, 50s and 60s aren’t always aware of their limitations and can actually be more prone to having a heart attack than seniors are, because they feel they’re healthy enough for shoveling snow and doing other types of outdoor exertional work in the cold, and don’t warm up first or wear warm enough clothing.

How You Can Protect Yourself Against a Heart Attack in Cold Weather

If you have known heart disease or have one or more risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, or are overweight you should think carefully before going out in the cold to shovel snow, and consider hiring a licensed snow removal service instead. Check with local landscapers in your area to see if they provide residential snow blowing or snow shoveling services near you.

But if you insist on shoveling your own driveway this winter, it’s best to first speak with your primary care physician or cardiologist before shoveling or taking on any high-exertion physical activities in cold weather. And follow these safe shoveling tips from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Dress warm by wearing several layers of clothing, you can always remove a layer when needed.
  • Take it slow, pace yourself and take frequent breaks to go inside and assess how you feel.
  • Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated. During cold-weather months it’s just as important to stay hydrated as it is during warmer months.
  • Warm up your arms and legs before you start shoveling. You’re less likely to injure muscles when they are warmed up first.
  • To protect your back, lift with your legs. Keep your feet hip-width apart for balance, keep the snow shovel close to your body and lift the snow with your knees bent.
  • Shovel while the snow is fresh, it will be lighter than snow that has already started melting. And try not to pick up too much snow at one time, don’t fill a large snow shovel up more than half way.
  • Most importantly, listen to your own body. If something doesn’t feel right or if you are tired, stop shoveling and go inside. A heart attack symptom doesn’t necessarily have to be chest pain, if you feel nauseous or more fatigued or out of breath these can be red flags,

If you are experiencing an emergency call 911 immediately. Be heart conscious, and don’t shovel while you’re smoking, eating or after drinking caffeine, this can put extra stress on your heart.

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