Should You Be Shoveling Snow?
Yes, the weather outside is frightful, and soon you will have to think about shoveling snow. But should you be the one doing the work? Who should and should not shovel snow, and how can you do it safely?
Every winter, approximately 1,200 Americans die from a heart attack or another type of cardiac incident during or after a snowstorm, and shoveling snow is often the triggering event. Sometimes rushing outside to remove the snow so you can get out can result in a trip you had not planned on taking—to the emergency department.
According to the Harvard Heart Letter, several things happen when people shovel snow, and they tend to place a great deal of stress on the body, especially the heart. One is that shoveling involves the arms and shoulders, and upper body exercise places strain on the heart because those muscles typically are not well conditioned. Because shoveling in an upright position causes blood to pool in the legs and feet, the heart must work harder to maintain blood pressure.
Shoveling snow is hard work, but much of it involves isometric exercise until you actually toss a shovelful of snow into a pile or up onto the bank. During isometric exercise, heart rate increases and blood vessels constrict in an attempt to send more blood to your working muscles. This causes blood pressure to rise.
Do you hold your breath while shoveling? Many people do and do not realize it. In fact, shovelers often bear down while they hold their breath, a combination that can lead to rapid changes in blood pressure and heart beat.
The Harvard Heart Letter advises anyone who has a heart condition to avoid shoveling snow under any circumstances. People who are older than 50, who smoke, have high blood pressure, are overweight, or who are on chemotherapy also should not shovel. If you believe you are a candidate for snow shoveling, do not attempt to dig out first thing in the morning. That’s when your stress hormone levels are typically higher and platelets in the blood are more likely to clump together, which is a recipe for a heart attack.
Before venturing outside, spend five minutes doing light stretching exercises, dress in layers, wear a hat and gloves, avoid caffeine and nicotine for at least one hour before shoveling snow, and do not drink alcohol for several hours prior to shoveling.
Once outside, shovel in a leisurely fashion, take frequent rest breaks, and drink fluids (water, no caffeine or alcohol) to avoid dehydration. Do not attempt to remove deep snow with one huge shovel full of snow: skim a few inches off the top and work your way down. Avoid throwing snow to either side or over your shoulder. Instead, use a shovel with a small scoop and walk to where you want to put the snow.
If your clothing or feet get wet, go inside and change. If at any time you experience chest pain, palpitations, unusual shortness of breath, fatigue, lightheadedness, or nausea, stop shoveling and go inside. When you have finished shoveling, do some light stretching to cool down. Avoid drinking caffeine or smoking tobacco for at least an hour after shoveling, as they can elevate your blood pressure and heart rate, increasing your risk for a heart attack. Smoking also raises carbon monoxide levels, which hinders the delivery of oxygen to the heart muscle.
Should you be shoveling snow? It’s a question that everyone should ask themselves when the white stuff begins to accumulate on their driveway and sidewalks. The better questions might be, Will you risk your health if you do shovel snow? Would you be better off letting someone else do the shoveling for you?
American Heart Association
Harvard Heart Letter