How to Ward Off the Heart Risks of Shoveling Snow

February 11, 2021

If you see a cardiologist for any reason, you probably should not shovel snow (or push a snow blower). The safest thing you can do is wait for it to melt or get someone else to take care of it.

This recommendation is commonly given by cardiologists such as David Fischman, MD, of Jefferson Cardiology & Vascular Surgery Voorhees

Over the years, studies have suggested a substantial correlation between heart attack incidences and snowfall (the more frequent the snowfall, the higher the incidences). Whether or not this is directly tied to shoveling snow isn’t entirely known; however, knowing the evident risks that physical exertion and cold weather have on those with heart disease, many experts believe it is.

People who are at higher risk for cardiac events when shoveling snow include those who have heart disease, coronary artery disease or hypertension (high blood pressure), explains Dr. Fischman. In general, though, everyone above the age of 55 is at risk and should be careful.

Why do heart attacks occur when shoveling snow?

Several factors play into this, says Dr. Fischman. First, many people who go out to shovel snow aren’t in shape. They’re not used to exercising – especially not now, during the pandemic – and they don’t realize that shoveling snow is an incredibly vigorous activity that places a lot of strain on the heart.

Dr. Fischman even suggests that lifting hundreds of pounds of snow is as equally strenuous as hitting the highest level (your maximum heart rate) during a stress test – often, for a longer period of time than what you’d do on the treadmill.

This, plus the frigid temperatures, causes your blood vessels to constrict and your blood pressure to rise. Also, people tend to not layer properly. They sweat and overheat, causing even more of an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, as the body tries to cool itself. In some cases, this will result in plaque ruptures and a heart attack.

For those who aren’t at high risk, how can they best prepare and protect their heart when shoveling?

Dr. Fischman advises the following precautions – for people of any age and otherwise in good health:

  • Take breaks and get it done in small batches. If you have to go somewhere, just clear enough to get your car out.
  • Dress appropriately. Wear breathable layers that you can easily take off, not heavy wools that trap in sweat.
  • Hydrate! You may not feel as thirsty as you would working outside in the heat of summer, but you’re still exerting just as much energy (and sweat) and need to replenish with water. This will help reduce muscle ache and fatigue afterwards.
  • Minimize how much you lift to avoid injury and reduce heart strain. Pushing is favorable to lifting. If it feels like you’re putting too much stress on your body, you probably are.

Keep in mind, staying active year-round will help lower your risk for heart disease and make things like shoveling snow a lot easier.

Now, during a pandemic, is not the time to worry about making your driveway or yard look pretty, reminds Dr. Fischman. If you can, just let the snow melt.

To learn more about Cardiology and other Primary & Specialty Care Services offered at Jefferson Health – New Jersey, click HERE.