The fall season usually means lots of leaf-raking, tree-trimming and gutter-cleaning.
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While it’s known that shoveling snow can put you at risk for heart attack, cardiologist Nicholas Ruthmann, MD, says it’s just as important to be careful during your fall clean-up too — particularly if you’re older or have heart disease.
If you’re not used to regular exercise or aren’t in shape, you can also be more likely to suffer a heart attack if you don’t take the right precautions.
Why yardwork can put you at risk
It may be a simple task, but raking leaves is one of the autumn chores that can have the biggest impact on your heart, Dr. Ruthmann says. In fact, it’s considered to be aerobic exercise because of all the twisting and bending involved.
Clearing debris and trimming trees and bushes can really get your heart pumping, too.
“This kind of yard work can be particularly hard on your heart for many reasons,” he says.
First, raking leaves can be deceptively challenging. “Particularly if leaves are wet, they can actually be very heavy, making raking leaves as physically rigorous in some cases as shoveling snow,” he says.
Second, a large amount of exertion too quickly can trigger a heart attack — especially in the cold weather. This is because your arteries constrict, which can drive up your blood pressure. This puts pressure on your heart.
And if you’ve been more sedentary in recent or colder months, it can be even riskier. That’s yet another reason to stay active all year long, Dr. Ruthmann adds.
“Yard work is a workout. And like starting any new workout, you want to start slowly. But people tend to just jump right into yard work and try to tackle it all at once. That’s a bit like going from your couch to running a marathon,” he says. “If you aren’t super active year round, suddenly piling on a lot of yard work can be a jolt to your system.”
Doing any physical activity too quickly can cause health risks — especially on your heart, he adds.
Pace yourself and stay hydrated
For all these reasons, Dr. Ruthmann recommends easing into the work and paying attention to your pace once you get going.
“Of course, we want you to be active, we want you to exercise. And we want your yards to look good, too!” he says. “But we advise you start slowly and don’t overexert or strain yourself.”
Like with any physical activity, Dr. Ruthmann suggests warming up before you start (Again, it’s especially true if you have a history of heart disease, are older or aren’t physically active). Also remember to drink plenty of water and take frequent breaks.
Listen to your body for warning signs
Your body will let you know if you’re doing too much, but Dr. Ruthmann says we often ignore those messages.
“It’s important to pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you feel any aches or pains, stop.” he says. “Know the signs of a heart attack. And it’s important to note there are different signs for men and women. Be aware of the symptoms and listen to your body.”
Once you’re working, be on the lookout for any warning signs of trouble, such as:
- Chest pain accompanying the work you’re doing.
- Chest pain that persists.
- Pain that goes away when you stop working, then returns when you start again.
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
- Women often feel fatigue or weakness.
Dr. Ruthmann also says it’s important to let a family member know when you’re doing yard work, particularly if you live alone, so they can check in on you.
“Of course, if you experience any signs or symptoms of heart attack, do not hesitate and call 9-1-1 right away,” Dr. Ruthmann says.