Can Shoveling Snow Increase Your Risk Of Heart Attack?
It seems your heart is not a big fan of shoveling snow in the winter. Who is? It’s hard work and usually freezing cold outside. But does shoveling snow elevate your risk of heart attack, even if you’re in good health?
One study claims to have found a link between heavy snowfall and a subsequent increase in hospital admissions—the majority of which being men complaining of heart trouble.
By comparing weather data and reported cardiac events from 1981 to 2014, this study showed that “both the quantity and duration of snowfall were associated with subsequent risk” of heart attack.1
Why does shoveling snow put your heart at risk?
- Shoveling snow is unlike any other exercise because it places a greater demand on the heart. Regular exercise requires 65-75% of maximal effort, whereas shoveling snow demands a huge 80-90%. Nobody can sustain that level of effort, not even the greatest athlete.
- Shoveling snow uses the arms over the legs to drive energy. This requires a greater amount of effort and larger supply of oxygen. In addition, the lifting and throwing movements require you to raise your arms above the heart which immediately raises your blood pressure and signals the heart to beat faster.
- The act of shoveling involves pushing and lifting movements. Upon exertion, most of us will instinctively hold our breath, causing blood pressure to build up when we push or lift. This creates an increasing demand on the heart. Pushing a snow blower can have the same effect.
- The chilly temperatures cause your blood vessels to constrict when you inhale cold air. This can restrict oxygen supply and as a result, your heart has to work harder to compensate.
These reasons all point to a high risk of heart attack from snow shoveling. The heavier the snowfall and the longer the storm, the greater the risk.
How can you minimize your risk of heart attack while shoveling snow?
- Check with your doctor first to make sure no pre-existing conditions put you at risk.
- Make sure you warm up properly with some light stretching before shoveling. Going from a resting rate to 80-90% of maximum output places enormous strain on your heart.
- Dress appropriately and protect your face with a scarf or face mask, so you warm the air as you breathe.
- Invest in a smaller shovel to lessen each load.
- Start slowly and try not to tackle the whole chore at once.
- Take breaks after every 1-5 minutes of shoveling.
- Make sure you breathe upon exertion and avoid holding your breath.
- After shoveling, be sure you cool down properly before retreating indoors to warm up. Some light walking will help your heart adjust to its regular beat.
- Consider hiring a snow plow to clear your driveway after big snowstorms.
Most of us don’t think of shoveling snow as exercise, so we jump to it without a worry. But in reality, the extreme demand of the exercise combined with frigid temperatures places even the healthiest of hearts in jeopardy. Before venturing out to clear the snow, adopt some of these safety measures and make sure you get the all-clear from your doctor.
- CMAJ. 2017 Feb 13; 189(6): E235–E242. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.161064
- Blog Contributor