Why picking up that snow shovel could give you a heart attack this winter


Winter is here. For a lot of us that means days upon days upon months of snow.

And while that first snowfall might be gorgeous — and looking out your window on the beautiful, icy expanse can be peaceful — the mounds of white stuff soon turn from awe-inspiring to sheer drudgery as you work to clear it from your walkways and driveway.

Yes, depending on where you live, it’s time to break out your snow shovel.

Hold on though…

Before you head out into the cold, there’s something you need to know.

Shoveling snow could be more than back-breaking work… it could be work that breaks your heart as well.

According to medical experts, shoveling snow could actually be a heart attack waiting to happen, especially if the most exercise you usually get is doing a little housework on the weekends or walking from your couch to your refrigerator.

Why is shoveling snow dangerous to your heart?

OK, what’s the deal?

Shoveling snow gives you exercise, gets you active and makes your heart pump. Isn’t that good for you?

Surprisingly, the answer is no for a number of reasons. First and foremost, moving all of that heavy snow puts massive demands on your cardiovascular system.

You may be shocked to learn that snow shoveling is just as demanding on your heart as performing a cardiac stress test on a treadmill or bicycle — a test that can easily exceed 80 to 90 percent of your maximum exercise tolerance.

And since snow shoveling is an activity that relies heavily on your upper body, the demands on your heart and your blood pressure continue to rise.

Even worse, while your arms are working so hard, your lower body is also under strain. Your feet have to stay planted so that you don’t slip and fall; your muscles (all the way from your buttocks to your toes) clench.

Basically, you’re performing lower body isometrics — a type of exercise that is known to raise blood pressure far more than aerobic activities, like walking or jogging.

Between the upper body activity you’re performing and the lower body isometrics, there can be disastrous consequences for your blood pressure.

And that’s not all…

When it comes time to grab our snow shovels, most of us pull on our coats and head out the door, with nothing else in between — especially not a warmup for our muscles.

Unfortunately, all this does is further increase the danger to our hearts. This lack of a warmup leaves our muscles at high risk of injury. And when an injury happens, your heart rate skyrockets and the strain on your blood vessels skyrockets with it.

Last, but certainly not least, just being out in that freezing air is a problem in itself.

When you’re out in the cold, your blood vessels (the arteries that feed your heart included) constrict. And you can experience a stress reaction to the cold that can, according to Georgetown University neurologist Dr. Andrew Sterner, “not only increase the work of the heart but make blood stickier and more likely to clot.”

This means that you could just as easily have a stroke as a heart attack while you’re out there working.

Heart protection during snow shoveling

All of this information makes it easy to see why you need to be extra cautious when it comes to your heart health and clearing snow.

The first way to protect yourself is to determine if you are part of one of these high risk groups:

  • You’ve had a prior heart attack
  • You have known heart disease
  • You have high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • You are a smoker
  • You lead a sedentary lifestyle

Next, be sure to talk to your doctor to see if it’s safe for you to shovel snow.

If you’re cleared for the work, follow these tips…

Before you shovel snow:

  • Avoid shoveling immediately after you wake up. Most heart attacks happen early in the morning when your blood is more prone to clotting. Wait for at least 30 minutes, and don’t forget to warm up first by walking or marching in place for a few minutes.
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal before shoveling. This causes blood to be diverted from your heart to your stomach.
  • Don’t drink coffee or smoke for at least one hour before or one hour after shoveling or during breaks. These are stimulants that elevate your blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Feed your heart the nutrients it needs every day (year-round). Nutrients to look for include: CoQ10 (to support energy to your heart cells), nattokinase (for healthy clotting) and K2 (for healthy circulation, normal blood pressure and flow and healthy cholesterol levels).

While shoveling:

  • Use a small shovel and shoot for many light loads instead of fewer heavy ones.
  • Begin slowly and take frequent 15-minute breaks.
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
  • Dress in layers to avoid hypothermia (low body temperature) or overheating.
  • Cover your head and neck. Half of all body heat is lost through these areas.
  • Cover your mouth. Breathing cold air can cause angina or trigger breathing problems.
  • Watch for warning signs of a heart attack, including lightheadedness, dizziness, being short of breath, or if you have tightness or burning in chest, neck, arms or back. If you think you’re having a heart attack, call 911 immediately — don’t wait.

Walking out the door and picking up your snow shovel could be one of the most dangerous things you do when it comes to your heart health. Be aware, don’t ignore these dangers and use the tips above to help keep your heart ticking.