Heart-Safe Snow Shoveling

Chen On Chen, MD
Cardiologist and Director
Outpatient Services
Stony Brook University Heart Institute

It’s important to keep in mind that extreme winter activity such as shoveling snow — or even pushing a heavy snow blower — can cause an uptick in blood pressure and heart rate, putting stress on your heart and placing you at risk for a heart attack. Before tackling that foot-high mound of winter wonderland blanketing your driveway, take some time to read these heart-safe tips from cardiologist On Chen, MD.

What Are Some Tips I Can Use Before Shoveling Snow?
Dress for the Cold

Low outdoor temperatures can cause blood vessels to constrict, reducing blood flow and raising blood pressure, making your heart work harder. Layer up with a few thin layers. This will keep you warmer than one thick layer and you can remove a layer, as needed, to avoid overheating. Wear a scarf to cover your mouth, head and neck so that warm air hits your lungs first when you breathe in. And be sure boots and gloves are waterproof to avoid dampness.

Drink Fluids and Skip the Lasagna
Winter cold increases the risk of dehydration. Drinking plenty of water helps the heart pump blood to the muscles more easily so your heart doesn’t have to work as hard. Keep in mind too that eating a heavy meal before shoveling diverts your blood from your heart to your stomach.

Nudge Awake Sleeping Muscles
Stretch before heading out. Alternate between your right and left sides, pulling each knee to your chest a dozen or so times. Wait about an hour after waking up to reach for your shovel. Most heart attacks occur early in the morning.

What are Some Tips I Can Use While Shoveling Snow?
Be Shovel Smart

Go small, lightweight and ergonomically designed. Stick with a shovel that is under three pounds and with a handle long enough to allow for a good grip without crouching down. Try to shovel snow shortly after it falls, when it is still lighter. A full wet shovel load can weigh as much as 25 pounds.

Pace Yourself
When shoveling, go very, very slowly. Head inside often and give yourself a chance to warm up. Limit shoveling to 15-minute clips or just 10 minutes if you are not used to exercise. Most important, listen to your body. Stop if you feel tired.

Save Your Back
Try pushing the snow rather than lifting it. If you do lift, bend your knees and use your legs, not your back. Don’t remove deep snow all at once. Limit yourself to just an inch or two at a time, aiming for smaller, lighter loads rather than fewer, heavier ones.

Watch for Warning Signs
Call 911 right away for any unusual signs and symptoms, such as chest pain, dizziness or shortness of breath that may suggest a heart condition. Never pick up a snow shovel without a doctor’s okay if you have a history of heart trouble.

Call in the Troops
If you are healthy and active, you should have no problem shoveling snow, but many people don’t know they have health risks like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, so everyone should be careful. If you’re over 40 or have questions about your health, see your doctor before participating in any strenuous winter activities, especially shoveling snow. Best idea yet: Get your 14-year-old to put down the iPhone and help. They could use the fresh air and exercise.


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