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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 02/ 4/2011

Is that right? Shoveling snow boosts heart-attack risk

By Jennifer LaRue Huget

People across the nation have shoveled more than their share of snow so far this winter. But is shoveling really so likely to cause a heart attack, as we're so often cautioned? Or is the snow-shoveling/heart attack link the stuff of urban (and suburban) legend?


A 1979 study in The Lancet found a link between blizzards and heart-attack deaths. One published in 2003 in the American Journal of Cardiology had similar findings. The American Heart Association cautions that even walking through thick, heavy snow can put a strain on a person's heart, and that simply getting too cold can cause hypothermia, which can lead to death from heart failure.

Snow shoveling (and other activities such as pushing cars and operating snowblowers) is the perfect setup for heart attack (when blood flow to a section of heart muscle becomes blocked) and sudden cardiac death (in which the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating).

William Suddath, an interventional cardiologist at Washington Hospital Center, says his hospital has seen more heart-attack and sudden-death admissions during the last couple of snow-filled weeks; he says they saw a similar rise in such admissions during last year's huge snowfall. Suddath explains that exposure to cold weather can cause blood vessels and coronary arteries to constrict, which decreases the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart -- even as the heart is working harder due to the exertion and the need to keep the body warm. Such constriction can contribute to heart attack or even stroke, because it can dislodge the plaque built up along blood-vessel walls, enabling a clot to form.

If you absolutely must go out and shovel snow, Suddath advises the following:

  • Dress warmly
  • Avoid consuming alcohol or caffeine
  • Stay well hydrated (by drinking water)
  • Warm up and cool down, just as for any form of exercise
  • Take frequent breaks; work for only 5 or 10 minutes at a time
  • Lift only small amounts of snow at a time

And, if you have any history of coronary disease or are otherwise at risk, "You should hire someone if at all possible," Suddath says, to do your shoveling for you.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | February 4, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cardiovascular Health, General Health, Snowmageddon  
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Next: Why is the whole world getting fatter?

Comments

Nonsenses, I have always gone out in this weather without a heavy coat or dressed as if I were in Alaska and shoveled snow without any problem. Remember, that these so called doctors earn their living with this kind of garbage.You know what scare,scare,scare,scare,equals? money,money,money,money.

Posted by: skr3211 | February 4, 2011 3:06 PM | Report abuse

While living in Komi Republic( Russia )I shoveled snow every day and also without problems though I was over 55.

Posted by: yakovlev24_11 | February 4, 2011 4:18 PM | Report abuse

While living in Komi Republic( Russia )I shoveled snow every day and also without problems though I was over 55.

Posted by: yakovlev24_11 | February 4, 2011 4:21 PM | Report abuse

While living in Komi Republic( Russia )I shoveled snow every day and also without problems though I was over 55.

Posted by: yakovlev24_11 | February 4, 2011 4:21 PM | Report abuse

While living in Komi Republic( Russia )I shoveled snow every day and also without problems though I was over 55.

Posted by: yakovlev24_11 | February 4, 2011 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Over-40. After shoveling snow with a heavier metal shovel, I noticed the breastbone area of the chest was flushed. Now I use a smaller plastic shovel with no similar symptoms.

Posted by: cjherzfeld@verizon.net | February 4, 2011 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Get and use an heart-rate-monitor. They are inexpensive and very easy to use. The moment your rate reaches a certain number, that depend on your age and medical history, stop and sit. For a 65 year old person in apparent fairly good health, 90 bpm is top. Being overdressed is worse than underdressed. Dress in several medium layers, so you can remove one if necessary. Don't eat the usual american breakfast before shoveling, just take juice and water, or better yet Gatorate as we need both water and glucose.

Posted by: ThishowIseeit | February 4, 2011 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Mr Yakovlev,
You realize, of course, that those who died following your lead would not be able to contribute to these comments.

Posted by: candomarty | February 5, 2011 11:47 AM | Report abuse

After having one job in college shoveling trenches all day for the water dept. in 90+ degree weather, then living in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska for the last 40 years, I've found that cardiovascular risk is reduced sharply by: (1) dressing warmly in layers, including head, feet, and hands; (2) shovel at a moderate pace from start to finish; (3) lift with your legs and not your back; (4) if a break is needed, take it; (5) eat an easily digested meal before shoveing, such as a banana or glass or orange juice; (6) don't consume caffeine or nicotine in any form, especially prior to shoveling due to their constrictive effect on blood vessels. I have never bought a snow blower and have no future plans to do so. Although it takes from 3 to 4 hours to shovel the driveway, sidewalks, and mounds left by city snow tractors in fron of the driveway and sidewalks, I do sweat, but have little increase in heart rate. Finally, don't get mad at the city tractor drivers when they push large mounds of snow on your sidewalk, in fron of the sidewalk(s), and in front of your driveway. How else can they get the streets clean? Snow shoveling, like any other exercise requiring exertion can be risky if not done correctly. However, it is no more risky than lifting weights in the gym or other types of exertion.

Posted by: as554629 | February 5, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Maybe the risk isn't snow shoveling per se, but it's being an over-weight, out-of-shape couch potato who's attempting strenuous exercise for the first time in a year that's the real problem.

Posted by: JoeMc | February 5, 2011 12:21 PM | Report abuse

In other breaking news - Water...It's Wet!

Posted by: overed | February 5, 2011 4:33 PM | Report abuse

If shoveling snow is going to give you a heart attack, its just accelerating things by a few weeks.

Shoveling snow isn't even that difficult; if you're not fit enough to do it, then I don't think you should be allowed to drive or hold a critical job. Who knows when you're about to go?

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | February 5, 2011 10:12 PM | Report abuse

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