Drop that Snow Shovel Before it Kills You!

By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Wellness

February 3, 2021

“Hey, did you hear about Charlie? He was out shuffling snow yesterday and dropped dead from a heart attack… right in his driveway!”

Sadly, each winter, some version of this story will make its way through your community.  That’s because people don’t always respect the very real heart dangers that come with shoveling snow.[1]

Lucky for me, I don’t have to deal with it in my sunny home of Florida.  But, believe me, I’ve shoveled my fair share of driveways growing up farther north.

Honestly, shoveling snow is just as hard as running full speed on a treadmill.  So, many people with a gung-ho attitude end up pushing themselves too hard.  Each year, snow shoveling is responsible for 1,647 cardiac-related deaths.[2]When you think about it from a science perspective, it makes perfect sense.  Shoveling snow does indeed put you at a higher risk of heart attack… especially if  you’re over the age of 55 years.[3]

Let me explain.

Arm exercise is harder on your heart.

First off, shoveling snow is hard work!  And it tends to be harder work for your upper body in particular.  This puts more strain on your heart.

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A 1996 study found that the heart rate of men after two minutes of shoveling snow was MUCH higher than the recommended upper limits.[4] They were literally pushing their hearts past their limits.

As the snow gets deeper or heavier, the effort to lift each shovel-full gets harder and harder.  Your heart rate and systolic blood pressure greatly increase.[5]

Pretty soon,  you have folks who aren’t in very good physical shape trying to master an extremely hard workout without any sort of preparation.

When people lift a shovel filled with snow, they naturally hold their breath.  It’s caused by something called the “valsalva effect.”  And that acutely increases blood pressure even higher.

Snow shoveling is a cold weather exercise.

No kidding.  But the cold weather actually works to vasoconstrict your blood vessels — especially small blood vessels.  This increases your blood pressure and creates cardiac stress.[6]

Then, breathing in the cold air constricts your trachea.  So, now it’s harder for you to breathe in the oxygen you need to manage the period of intense exercise.

People tend to shovel first thing in the morning.

Just imagine… you wake up to a blanket of freshly fallen snow.  So, you grab the shovel and get to the work of digging out your car and clearing your sidewalk right away.

You might even be in a hurry to make it to work or an appointment on time.  If you’re not in the best of shape — cardiovascularly speaking — this bout of vigorous snow shoveling first thing in the morning equals trouble.

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That’s because your body is in a certain circadian rhythm phase early in the morning.  Your adrenal glands are working hard to wake you up, get your fluids moving, and getting your blood pressure down.

Most cardiac events happen in the morning even without snow shoveling, so why compound the risk?

Men are at an even higher risk.

If you’re a man shoveling snow,  your risk is even higher.

Maybe this is because women don’t seem to push themselves as hard as their male counterparts.  When women go through menopause, this risk evens out a bit more.

The typical 40, 50, or 60-something person with any degree of coronary heart disease creates a perfect storm for a heart attack.[7]

So, it’s scary.

The risk of a heart attack while shoveling snow gets even higher if you already have hypertension, diabetes, you smoke, or you’re overweight.

Instead of grabbing the shovel, do this instead…

So, next time you wake up to a layer of white stuff covering your long driveway, take a moment to be smart.

  • Pay the neighborhood kid $20 to shovel for you or hire a winter service
  • Get in better shape for next year’s season.
  • Use a snow blower.(When I lived in snow country I could hardly wait to vanquish the waist high snow we got on a regular basis, so I could rev up my machine)
  • Wait until later in the day when your circadian rhythm is in a better phase and the temperature is higher.
  • Cover your mouth with a scarf to warm the air as you breathe.
  • Pace yourself. Don’t do it all in one outing.
  • Take breaks to warm up.

With these tips in your back pocket, you can tackle that next storm without worry of losing your life.

Sources:

[1] Winter advisory for heart patients: shun that shovel.Heart Advis. 2002; 5: 2

[2] Am J Emerg Med. 2011 Jan;29(1):11-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2009.07.003. Epub 2010 Mar 25.

[3] The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, Volume 29, Issue 1, January 2011, Pages 11-17

[4] Snow shoveling: a trigger for acute myocardial infarction and sudden coronary death.

Am J Cardiol. 1996; 77: 855-858

[5] Sheldahl L.M., Wilke N.A., Dougherty S.M., Levandoski S.G., Hoffman M.D., Tristani F.E.

Effect of age and coronary artery disease on response to snow shoveling.

J Am Coll Cardiol. 1992; 20: 1111-1117

[6] Persinger M.A., Ballance S.E., Moland M., Snow fall and heart attacks.

J Psychol. 1993; 127: 243-252

[7] van Rossum CT, Shipley MJ, Hemingway H, Grobbee DE, Mackenbach JP, Marmot MG. Seasonal variation in cause-specific mortality: are there high-risk groups? 25-year follow-up of civil servants from the first Whitehall study. Int J Epidemiol. 2001;30:1109–1116.

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