More than 1,600 people died from cardiac-related attacks that happened while they were shoveling snow during a 16-year time period, according to one study. How you can stay safe.
Preventing injury while shoveling snow
Shoveling snow can be dangerous. Here are some of the risks and how to minimize them.
As snow storms and other inclement weather sweep across parts of the country, many Americans have spent the first part of the new year shoveling and blowing the white stuff from driveways and sidewalks.
As the winter season progresses with more snow on the way, the arduous task of shoveling snow continues to loom. However, experts warn that not everyone should partake in the high-intensity activity.
Between 1990 and 2006, an average of roughly 11,500 people a year were treated for snow-shoveling-related incidents, including 1,647 cardiac-related deaths spread out during that period, according to a peer-reviewed study published in 2010.
People who are over 45 years old, and have heart disease or suspect that they have heart disease, should probably put down the shovels, according to Barry Franklin, director of Preventive Cardiology and Cardiac Rehabilitation at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Michigan.
Franklin has conducted numerous studies on snow-shoveling accidents after knowing two people in their 60s who died while shoveling snow in the 1970s and 1990s.
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Who is at risk?
Franklin warns that shoveling snow creates a “perfect storm” for cardiac arrest and death. Underlying heart disease is a major factor in potentially getting injured or even dying while shoveling snow.
“There’s good evidence that if you’re over the age of 45 or 50, in the United States, if you grew up on Ben and Jerry’s, and KFC Chicken, and so on and so forth – there’s a greater than 50% likelihood you have underlying heart disease,” Franklin said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., with one person dying from cardiovascular disease every 33 seconds. Nearly half of American adults have cardiovascular diseases, according to an American Heart Association report in 2019.
Franklin explained that if someone has had a heart attack in the past, or undergone bypass surgery or angioplasty, then they have heart disease. Those who are out of shape, overweight, diabetic, or have a history of high cholesterol or hypertension most likely have suspected heart disease. Lack of regular exercise also contributes to someone’s risk of injury or death.
“If they’re habitually sedentary, if they do nothing all year round and then decide when they get a big snowfall, ‘I’m gonna go out and clear my driveway,’ those are the people that get in trouble,” Franklin said.
In his studies, Franklin found that men who had the highest fitness had lower heart rates and blood pressure while shoveling snow.
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What makes shoveling snow dangerous?
Five mechanisms make shoveling snow stressful on the heart, Franklin said.
Shoveling snow involves isometric or static exertion, which means that when someone is bending over and trying to lift heavy loads of snow, that causes a big increase in their heart rate and blood pressure.
Franklin added that shoveling snow also involves arm work, which is more “demanding” on the body than leg work. The third risk factor is the Valsalva maneuver. When someone is straining while shoveling snow, they may hold their breath while lifting the heavy load, which causes additional increases in heart rate and blood pressure, according to Franklin.
The task of shoveling snow largely means someone’s legs are stationary, which causes the fourth risk factor.
“They’re not moving up and down. The problem we believe is that blood tends to pool in the lower extremities and it’s not getting back to the heart or the head to the same extent,” Franklin said. “So you’re working very hard, you get big high heart rates, high blood pressures, and the blood is not getting back because you’re not promoting what we call venous return by having those legs moving.”
The last factor is usually breathing in cold air, which constricts the arteries in the blood and raises blood pressure.
All of these factors combined make shoveling snow a dangerous task for those who already have or might suspect that they have underlying heart conditions.
“That’s why we believe it’s one of the most dangerous physical activity people can do,” Franklin said. “And if you’re sedentary, and you got risk factors, you got known heart disease, these are people who probably should think twice, and if they can hire somebody, or hire a plow.”
Ways to reduce the risk
Franklin said if someone has risk factors or is older and doesn’t have someone else who can shovel for them, there are a few things they can do to make the activity less dangerous.
- Push or sweep the snow: Franklin said this is “far less taxing” on the heart as opposed to lifting and moving the snow.
- Cover your mouth and nose and wear layered clothing: Hats, gloves, and jackets make it so that the cold has less of an impact on the body.
- Pace yourself: Instead of clearing a driveway or walkway in one go, Franklin suggests moving the snow for 10 to 15 minutes at a time with breaks in between.
- Be cautious of the wind: “If … it’s 10 degrees outside and you got 30 mph wind that’s equivalent to 33 degrees below zero,” Franklin said, adding that the wind chill causes greater constriction of blood vessels.
- Exercise all year round: Being habitually sedentary is a significant risk factor and Franklin suggests that if you have to shovel your own snow, being physically active throughout the year can lower your risk of injury. “If you’re doing a walking program, and you’re physically active all year round, our data suggest if you do go out and remove snow or move snow, or try to remove snow, your heart rates and blood pressures are going to be much lower than if you’re sitting at a computer and then once a year, you got a huge snowstorm, and you go out to try to move that when you’re doing nothing all year round. So start an exercise program, moderate to vigorous walking at least three to five days a week, 20 to 30 minutes. Those are people who will have lower heart rates and blood pressures,” he said.
- Use an automated device: While those who used a snow blower still had a high heart rate in Franklin’s study, it was lower than those who just used a shovel. So, he recommends using an automated device, which won’t increase your heart rate and blood pressure as much as a shovel.
Franklin’s final piece of advice: putting a “Warning” label on your shovel. He suggests “people take a little card and put a label on their shovel and the label says ‘Warning. Use of this instrument for snow removal may be hazardous to your health.” The label can serve as a reminder to take it easy.