Should you shovel that snow? How to protect your heart when winter weather strikes

Man shoveling heavy snow in the driveway

You might be eager to clear your driveway after a big snowfall. But before you head out into the cold, think twice. Shoveling snow can put as much stress on your heart as running on a treadmill set to its steepest climb. If your most frequent winter activity has been walking from the couch to the refrigerator, you could be at risk for a heart attack.

Read on for answers to common questions about protecting your heart in winter weather.

Are there more heart attacks during cold weather?

A combination of cold weather and strenuous exercise can lead to increased cardiac events in people who are at risk for heart attack. Cold weather causes vasoconstriction, when the blood vessels tighten and get smaller, and shoveling snow is a pretty strenuous activity.

Many people aren't physically active on a regular basis, and a heart attack or heart rhythm issue could strike if they shovel snow, especially if they have risk factors like prior heart disease, coronary artery disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity or a smoking habit.

Online calculator assesses your risks for heart disease and cancer

What happens to the heart when shoveling snow?

Essentially, you’re doing the same thing to your heart as an exercise stress test, which is designed to make the heart pump harder by having you run on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bike. Studies show that the heart rate jumps to 85% of its maximum within two minutes during snow shoveling. This can happen even faster for someone who’s deconditioned or not in shape.

An 85% heart rate indicates high-intensity aerobic activity or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). So, you’re going from a resting heart rate to exercising at a vigorous level very quickly, and that ends up putting you at risk, especially if you have a sedentary lifestyle.

You wouldn’t go from the couch straight to taking on the treadmill at its steepest climb. You shouldn’t go straight to snow shoveling, either.

And it’s not just shoveling snow. Pushing a snowblower can also cause your heart rate to increase pretty quickly.

What’s a dangerous heart rate?

Tips for shoveling snow

If you’re not exercising regularly, you shouldn’t be shoveling. Remember, shoveling snow is the same as doing incredibly strenuous exercise in the cold. Don’t take the risk.

Also pay attention to any signs or symptoms when you’re doing everyday activities. If there’s anything you’re worried about, or if you get a little chest pressure or shortness of breath when climbing a flight of stairs, have someone else do the shoveling for you and make a doctor appointment instead.

If you’re regularly active and don’t have risk factors, still take precautions to keep your heart safe:

Shovel in increments, taking several breaks. Shoveling an entire driveway at once is going to put you at higher risk, because you're working at a high level for a long period of time.

Stay hydrated. You don't realize how much water you lose when you're out in cold weather because your body's trying to keep itself warm. You'll lose water through sweat, but you won't feel like you're sweating.

What should I look out for when shoveling snow?

Symptoms that you might be having a heart attack include:

  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Palpitations, a feeling that the heart is racing or skipping a beat
  • Chest pressure or pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or heartburn
  • Excessive sweating

Women sometimes experience a fluttering sensation in the chest, flu-like symptoms or pain in the back, shoulder or jaw.

If you have any of these symptoms, stop what you’re doing immediately and get evaluated by a health care professional. If the symptoms persist more than 5 minutes, call 911.

Can the cold cause heart-related problems without activity?

Vasoconstriction, the tightening of blood vessels, can be induced by cold weather because the body clamps down to protect your core and keep your vital organs warm. This is why your hands might get cold or turn blue when we go out in cold weather.

Some people have a constrictive condition called Raynaud’s disease, triggered by cold and stress. Their fingertips might turn blue, or even black, because they’re not getting enough blood flow. They should avoid being out in cold weather without proper coverage, especially on the hands and feet.

Expert Guide to Heart Health: Answers to more of your heart health questions

What can I do to get more physically active?

First, talk with your physician to make sure there are no health barriers preventing you from being physically active.

If you can safely begin an exercise plan, start with a walking regimen. You can't run a marathon right away. Gradually build up, priming your cardiovascular system to do more strenuous physical activity.

The next step would be working with a trainer or physical therapist, depending on your condition, to determine your limits and abilities.

Your heart is in the right place

Learn more about advances in care and treatment for patients at The Ohio State University Heart and Vascular Center

Expert care starts here


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