March 13, 2017 Healthy Living

Protect Your Heart While Shoveling

Unless you own a snowblower or have hired your neighborhood plow guy, you can most likely add shoveling your driveway/walkway after each snowfall to your winter to-do list. In fact, you’ve probably been out there in the wee hours of the morning a few times already in the past couple of months.

Shoveling does a body good, but still be careful

Shoveling is great exercise. Think about it: You’re using your entire body, especially your arms, back and core. You’re also giving your cardiovascular system a good workout, as evidenced by increased breathing, an elevated heart rate and probably some light perspiration. But, it can also be dangerous, particularly if your fitness level is not where it should be, you’re middle age or older or you have a heart condition. Going back a few years when I was a practicing cardiologist, all too often people would come in complaining about chest pain or, in the worst cases, suffering from a heart attack. One of the main culprits, especially during the winter, was shoveling snow.

Those most at risk for a heart attack include:

  • Anyone who has already had a heart attack
  • Anyone with a history of heart disease
  • Anyone with high blood pressure or cholesterol levels
  • Smokers
  • Sedentary individuals
  • People 60 and older

Heart attack warning signs

While some heart attacks are sudden and intense, others can start more slowly and cause only minor pain and discomfort. Often, when someone is having a heart attack, he or she may not know what’s wrong and will wait too long to get help.

Common symptoms include:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort (pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain) in the center of the chest that lasts for a few minutes or goes away and returns.
  • Discomfort or pain in other areas of the upper body, such as the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

If you do experience any of these symptoms, your best bet is to call 911. Emergency medical services staff can begin life-saving treatment immediately and get you to the hospital fast.

Pay attention to your heart’s health

According to the American Heart Association, the combination of colder temperatures and physical exertion while shoveling increases the strain placed on the heart. If you do decide to shovel after a heavy snowfall, just keep these suggestions in mind:

  • Avoid caffeine or nicotine. Stimulants may increase your heart rate and constrict your blood vessels.
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal before or soon after shoveling. Doing so can cause your heart to work harder than it should.
  • Don’t drink alcohol before or immediately after shoveling. Alcohol may dull your senses and cause you to underestimate the amount of strain on your body.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water before, during and after you shovel.
  • Dress in layers so you stay warm and can regulate your body temperature.
  • Warm up your muscles by walking and stretching before you head out to shovel. Warm muscles are more efficient.
  • Use a shovel with a smaller blade. It will lift less snow, but it will also reduce the strain on your heart. When possible, push the snow instead of lifting it.
  • Begin slowly, pace yourself and take breaks.
  • Stop if you feel any discomfort or pain.

Talk to your doctor

As with all physical activity, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor first, especially if you’re inactive or have a history of heart trouble. He or she can provide some recommendations to follow and help identify any potential risks.

If you are dealing with a heart condition or another chronic illness, you can also receive guidance through the CDPHP Care Team.

Resolve to improve your fitness

Aside from reducing your risk for a heart attack caused by shoveling snow, or anything else, a regular exercise regimen will help you feel and look better, too. CDPHP® members can take advantage of free wellness and fitness classes.

Thankfully, you can take heart that winter only lasts a few months. Listen to your body, use common sense, and you’ll be feeling great just in time for spring.

Photo by OakleyOriginals / CC BY

John D. Bennett, MD, FACC, FACP
About the Author

John D. Bennett, MD, FACC, FACP, is president and CEO of Capital District Physicians’ Health Plan, Inc. (CDPHP), an award-winning, physician aligned, not-for-profit health plan based in Albany, NY. Bennett has held the position since 2008 after serving more than 10 years as chair, vice chair, and board member for CDPHP. During his tenure, CDPHP has been ranked among the top-performing health plans in New York and the nation, most recently named #1 in Customer Satisfaction in the 2023 J.D. Power Member Health Plan Study. Under his leadership, CDPHP has also become known as a model employer regionally and nationally and was recently named among the top five Best Companies to Work for in New York by the Society for Human Resource Management, as well as Forbes Best-in-State Employers 2022. Prior to joining CDPHP, Bennett served as founding member and CEO of Prime Care Physicians, PLLC. During his tenure, he co-led a team of 25 cardiologists and helped grow the practice to a 100-physician multi-specialty group. Bennett is board certified by the National Board of Medical Examiners and the American Board of Internal Medicine, with subspecialties in internal medicine and cardiology. He earned his medical degree at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, and a Bachelor of Science degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Bennett completed an internship and residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in cardiovascular disease at Albany Medical Center. He is a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and the American College of Physicians. Bennett is currently board chair for the Center for Economic Growth and the Capital Region Chamber, and vice chair for the Palace Theatre. Bennett also serves on the boards of the New York eHealth Collaborative (NYeC), the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP), America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Russell Sage Colleges. Bennett is a member of the New York Public Health and Health Planning Council where he helps shape decisions related to New York State's public health and health care delivery system. Well-known locally and nationally for advancing health care innovation, Bennett was recently named to Crain’s New York Business 2021 Notable in Health Care, as well as the Albany Business Review’s Power 50 list.

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