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ON THE PULSE NEWS

Snow shovelling may be dangerous for some hearts

Snow shovelling may be dangerous for some heartsReports have linked snow shovelling in extreme cold weather to an increased risk of hospitalization or death due to heart attacks. The Heart and Stroke Foundation advises taking extra precautions when snow shovelling during extreme cold alerts, particularly for individuals with a pre-existing heart condition or who are at high risk of heart disease.

Research shows that physical activity helps protect against heart disease, stroke and many other health conditions. It is also an important part of cardiac rehabilitation programs and an important way for heart patients to keep their cardiovascular system strong and resilient.

Extreme weather conditions, such as very high temperatures and humidity in the summer, smog, and cold winter days, can make physical activity more strenuous. Both strenuous exercise and extreme weather independently increase blood pressure, push the heart rate up, and increase blood concentration of fibrinogen, a protein involved in blood clotting. All of these factors contribute to increased heart attack risk.

The Foundation recommends approaching physical activity in extreme weather with caution if you have been diagnosed with heart or blood vessel disease (including stroke, previous heart surgery, and uncontrolled high blood pressure) or if you are at increased risk of a cardiac event because of high cholesterol levels, an inactive lifestyle being overweight, or obese or other risk factors. Speak to your doctor about what is acceptable for your health.

The risks become even greater when vigorous exercise and extreme weather are combined, such as when shovelling snow in sub-zero weather conditions. Studies show that in most people who have died shovelling snow or carrying out some other form of vigorous physical activity in extreme weather conditions, the plaque inside their blood vessels ruptured and travelled to the heart causing a heart attack. The rupture may be caused by increases in blood pressure or changes in vascular tone associated with physical exertion. Plaque is a sticky, yellow substance made up of fatty substances such as cholesterol, calcium, and waste products from your cells.

Here are some tips from the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

  • Take the time to do a few minutes of warm-up activity like walking to increase your heart rate slowly and prepare you for the activity
  • Build in frequent breaks from extreme weather activities so your body doesn’t become too strained
  • Ask for help from family, friends or neighbours if you need to do an urgent task, such as clearing snow, in bad weather;
  • Wear appropriate clothing and keep water nearby to replace fluids lost through perspiration
  • Plan ahead. Watch your local weather forecast for smog, humidity, heat and extreme cold alerts and plan for enough time or get help with major tasks like snow shovelling, on those days.
  • Stop your activity if you experience sudden shortness of breath, discomfort in the chest, lightheadedness, nausea, dizziness, or severe headache and immediately seek medical attention 

Snow shovelling in very cold weather has specific risks. Here are some additional tips to help you stay safe during this particular activity:

  • Don’t continue shovelling just to get the driveway cleared in a hurry. If you’re tired, quit;
  • Don’t shovel or do any other vigorous activity directly after eating a meal. Your body is working hard enough just to digest the meal; adding vigorous activity on top of that could put too much strain on your heart;
  • Don’t stoop to pick up the snow; bend at the knees to avoid back problems.
  • Find out if your community offers programs or assistance for snow shovelling or snow removal (particularly for older adults or those with existing heart conditions)

Read about the warning signals of heart attack.

Posted: Feb 9, 2009

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is provided for reference and education only. This Web article is not intended to be a substitute for a physician’s advice, diagnosis or treatment. The contents do not necessarily represent the Foundation’s opinion or policies and the Heart and Stroke Foundation assumes no responsibility or liability for any inaccuracy or omission of information or from the use of any information or advice in this article.