Waking up to find a thick layer of fresh, crisp snow covering your entire neighborhood can be breathtaking. But most of us are less-than-enthusiastic at the thought of shoveling a few inches (or perhaps a foot!) of snow from our driveways.
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But, before heading outdoors with shovel in hand, experts say it’s important to know that there’s a heightened risk for suffering a heart attack after shoveling heavy amounts of snow.
In fact, cardiologist Luke Laffin, MD, says many people underestimate just how strenuous snow-shoveling can actually be.
Shoveling is strenuous exercise
“Snow shoveling is very similar to being at ‘peak exercise’ on a stress test, so it puts a lot of strain on your heart,” he says. “And for someone who isn’t used to actually exercising and being physically fit, it can predispose them to heart attacks.”
Why is that? Too much exertion, too quickly, can trigger a heart attack —especially in the cold — when our arteries tend to constrict, which in turn, can drive up our blood pressure. Your risk also goes up if you’ve been more sedentary than usual in the winter months. (One more reason why you shouldn’t hibernate!)
Tips for shoveling safely
Plan to (or need to) shovel anyway? Dr. Laffin says it’s important to take your time – don’t push yourself too hard. Try following these 5 tips:
- If you feel your body beginning to get tired, go inside. Rest for a little bit.
- It’s best to not try and tackle an entire driveway all at once. Instead, Dr. Laffin recommends it’s smarter to divide up the work and taking frequent breaks.
- Stay warm (don’t forget to dress appropriately) and hydrated while shoveling snow. It’s critical.
- Pay careful attention to how you feel. Any significant onset of chest pain, trouble breathing or pain that radiates down the arm or into the neck are hallmark signs of a potential heart attack, Dr. Laffin says. Those are reasons to stop and seek medical attention right away.
- Know other less common signs of heart attack too because not all heart attacks have classic symptoms. You also should be concerned it you notice getting tired more easily, feeling like a cold sweat is coming on, or feeling light-headed.
Watch out for your spouse or parents too
If a loved one begins to show signs of heart trouble, or has trouble breathing after shoveling snow, call 9-1-1 immediately and seek medical care. If you’re not sure, it’s better to get it checked out.
When is it best to skip shoveling altogether?
If you have more than one medical condition or are over the age of 55, Dr. Laffin says it’s best to get someone else to shovel for you. It’s simply not worth the risk.
“Particularly people that have multiple medical conditions such as coronary artery disease or hypertension, or maybe they’re overweight or obese and don’t get a lot of physical activity – it’s not worth it to risk your heart,” he says.
“I think hiring the kid down the street to do it is a great idea,” Dr. Laffin says.