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The link between shoveling and heart attacks

Bryn Mawr Hospital January 30, 2020 Heart Health

As anyone who has dug out from a heavy snowstorm can tell you, shoveling snow is a full-body exercise. Several minutes of bending over, rotating and lifting heavy snow simultaneously can challenge the muscles in your arms, legs and back. But it can also challenge your heart, and the results can be dangerous.

Several studies—including a 2017 one conducted in snowy Quebec—have found an association between winters with heavy or frequent snowfalls and an increase in hospital admissions or deaths due to heart attack. What exactly causes the link? Lankenau Heart Institute Cardiologist Tarun Mathur, MD, FACC of Bryn Mawr Hospital, explains below.

Shoveling snow is an intense workout

You wouldn’t make your return to the gym after a year off by signing up for a high-intensity cardio or strength training class. But when you prepare to shovel your driveway after the first heavy snow of the season, that’s essentially what you’re asking of your body.

“One of the reasons that heart attacks are common during this time of year is that shoveling snow and even using a snowblower are strenuous activities. If you’re deconditioned or are not working out regularly, you’re forcing your body to take on a task it’s not prepared for,” says Dr. Mathur.

Cold weather makes your heart work harder

It might feel good to go for a run or a brisk walk on a chilly day, but engaging in high-intensity exercise or activity on days with freezing temperatures can require your heart to work harder.

When the weather is cold, your blood vessels constrict. This restricts oxygen and blood flow to the heart, which means your heart has to work harder to do its job. A few minutes in the cold might not put you at significant risk, but prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures coupled with restricted oxygen flow to the heart can be a dangerous combination and lead to a heart attack.

Muscle aches can mask heart attack symptoms

Regardless of your fitness level or experience, it’s not uncommon to feel a little sore after shoveling. Pain in the chest, arms or back could be a result of muscle strain…or it could be the warning symptoms of a heart attack. “Many people are quick to dismiss the symptoms of a heart attack and delay calling 911, especially women,” says Dr. Mathur. “But if you notice symptoms like chest pain or pain in your neck, arms, jaw or back, don’t shrug it off.”

If your symptoms persist or if they’re accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue, or lightheadedness, call 911 immediately.

What you can do instead

You can’t change the weather, but you can change how you deal with the aftermath of the next winter storm. Dr. Mathur advises people who are not typically active or who have a history of pulmonary or cardiac issues to leave the shoveling to someone else. Ask a family member or neighbor for help and, if you need to, hire a service to clear your driveway and walkway for you. If you absolutely must shovel, take the following steps to protect yourself and your heart:

  • Shovel in shifts—take frequent breaks to warm up inside
  • Wear several layers and cover your nose and mouth
  • Take breaks to hydrate with water
  • Shovel smaller, lighter loads
  • Only clear areas necessary to walk or drive

And, if you start to feel dizzy, tired, out of breath or a sudden pain anywhere in your body, stop immediately. Taking a break to go inside and breathe won’t derail your progress, but it could save your life.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.