Avoiding a Heart Attack While Shoveling Snow

Winter brings evenings by the fire, holiday cheer, warm eggnog … and snow. The first flakes of snow are exciting, as kids become giddy and adults speed up their plans for the holidays. But few of us think about the actual perils of shoveling that snow off our walkways and drives.

People who research this sort of thing tell us that the number of heart attacks increases substantially during winter months. I recently read that heart attack deaths triple among men 35 to 49 years old during cold weather. They also tell us that people with cholesterol build-up in their arteries, or coronary heart disease, are at higher risk in the winter months.

It seems that the reason for this is that the arteries tighten up in cold weather, which slows blood and reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the heart. The body also overexerts itself getting oxygen and staying warm … not to mention the physical exertion of shoveling snow.

People at Risk

  • People who have a history of heart problems.
  • People with coronary artery disease.
  • People who have high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • People with cholesterol problems.
  • People who eat a lot of holiday party food, which is usually not very heart healthy.
  • People who smoke.
  • People who are experiencing a great deal of stress.
  • People who are overweight – especially if by 30 percent or more.
  • People who consume excessive alcohol.
  • People who are normally sedentary.
  • People who have type II diabetes.

If you fall into any of these categories, it is recommended that you do not shovel snow, and instead, get a friend or family member to shovel for you. If necessary, hire someone to shovel your snow … that cost is nothing compared to experiencing a heart attack.

Steps to Prepare Against Heart Attack

  • Eat a heart-healthy low-fat diet (of course we should do this year-round).
  • Do not eat a big meal or drink alcohol before going out to shovel snow.
  • Do not take stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine because they constrict blood vessels.
  • Dress warmly; especially protect extremities of nose, ears, hands and feet. Cold weather can reduce circulation and aggravate your heart. Try to dress in layers so sweat will not build up and then chill your body.
  • Warm up your circulatory system by taking a walk around the block before starting to shovel. This is also a good time to stretch your arm and leg muscles to reduce stain or injury.
  • Use a shovel with a small blade. It is not a contest, and it is better to take more small shovels-full than try to manhandle large mounds of snow. Lighter loads prevent injury.
  • Pace yourself. Do not race with yourself to get everything cleared as quickly as possible. A good break every 15 minutes could save you a trip to the ER.
  • Stay hydrated. It is important to drink plenty of water regardless of the temperature.
  • Shovel often. Go out and clear your areas when no more than two inches of snow accumulates. Light workouts over an extended period of time are much safer than tackling a mountain of snow all at once.
  • Shovel smart. Spread your hands on the handle for better leverage, stand with your feet hip-width apart, then bend and lift at your knees rather than your back.

And, above all: if you experience chest pain; shoulder, arm, or neck pain; shortness of breath; dizziness; fainting; or nausea – stop immediately and seek emergency medical assistance.

The important thing to remember is that this is the holiday season – the time of year we should all be enjoying ourselves, and each other. Spending time in the hospital is not the way we want to spend part of our winter season. So, please proceed with caution and preparation when shoveling snow, and observe the warning signs of overexertion. Have a safe and enjoyable winter.