When it comes to shoveling snow from their walkway, most people don't have anything to worry about. However, according to the American Heart Association, a small percentage of individuals already in high-risk categories may want to reconsider this winter chore, because it may raise their risk of heart attack. Individuals who are most at risk include:
- Sedentary people over the age of 55
- Persons with high cholesterol or hypertension
- Current and former smokers
- Those diagnosed with a chronic heart condition
- People who have experienced a previous heart attack or stroke
While shoveling snow can be hazardous to individuals of any age, a recent study conducted by researchers at the Center for Injury Research found that an average of 11,500 injuries and medical emergencies treated in US emergency departments were attributed to this strenuous activity each year from 1990 to 2006. While only 7 percent of these cases were cardiac-related injuries, these tended to be the most severe, accounting for more than half of all total snow shoveling-related hospitalizations. Furthermore, 100 percent of the 1,647 fatalities associated with shoveling snow were from cardiac-related injuries.
Why Shoveling Snow is Such a Dangerous Activity
Very few researchers have examined the physiology behind snow shoveling, simply because it's a bit difficult to do so. However, we do know the cardiovascular demands of this exercise are extremely high. Surprisingly, it rivals the exertion produced in a cardiac stress test. Shoveling snow in the winter involves the combination of exposure to cold temperatures and heavy lifting. This combination forces the heart to work harder and increases the strain on this valuable muscle.
Warning Signs to Look Out for While Shoveling Snow
It is rare, but some heart attacks come on suddenly, without warning. In most cases of heart attacks there are some signs to indicate that something is wrong.
- Chest discomfort that rapidly comes and goes, or lasts for several minutes
- A sharp pain or heavy vice-like pressure in your chest
- Pain in your gut, jaw, neck, arms, or back
- Feeling lightheaded or experiencing shortness of breath
- Feeling nauseous
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
If a heart attack is suspected, it's crucial to call for help immediately. In fact, calling 911 is the best strategy for getting help during a heart attack. Heart attack treatment is typically received an hour earlier when EMS workers transport patients to the emergency room than when patients or relatives attempt to transport them there.
How to Lower Your Heart Attack Risk While Shoveling Snow
While no activity is ever risk-free, the following helpful hints can help reduce the risk of heart attack for individuals who must shovel snow:
- Consult your physician to ensure that you're physically healthy enough to shovel snow.
- Never shovel snow right after you wake up, as your blood is most likely to clot. Wait at least half an hour before beginning this winter chore, and never start before 10 am.
- Don't attempt to shovel snow after consuming alcohol, the risks of overexertion increase with intoxication and your ability to sense actual outside temperatures may be hampered.
- Stimulants like caffeine and cigarettes raise blood pressure and heart-rate levels. Using these before shoveling snow are hazardous.
- Stay hydrated while shoveling to avoid dehydration.
- Warm up your muscles to prepare for shoveling by walking around for a few minutes.
- Start shoveling slowly, and build up speed as you go.
- Use a smaller shovel to lighten the load and reduce exertion; it will take longer, but it's worth it.
Following these helpful hints can help reduce your risk of heart attack, but if you're not used to a lot of activity, it may be best to ask a family member or high school student to help out with your shoveling. You might also consider using a snow blower or a heated floor mat on your walkway. There are always alternatives worth exploring when your health is at stake. Shoveling the snow from the walkway or around your car is an important task, but it's never worth losing your life.