Michigan Association of Health Plans

Heart-safe snow shoveling

This article appeared in the University of Michigan Medicine Health Blog. Read more here

The beginning of the winter season, and the need to keep your sidewalks and driveway clear, can let you know, all of a sudden, that you might be out of shape.

“Many people haven’t done a lot of exercise for the rest of the year and shoveling snow is not only a heavy exercise, but an exercise that really stresses the entire cardiovascular system,” said John Bisognano, M.D., Ph.D., the head of preventive cardiology at the University of Michigan Health Frankel Cardiovascular Center. “Sometimes shoveling snow brings out the underlying cardiovascular diseases people have, and it may be the first time they notice that their exercise capacity is not what it used to be the year prior.”

Four tips for heart-safe snow shoveling:

1. Check-in with yourself before heading outside

Bisognano says, before you layer up and go outside, take a second to ask yourself how much physical activity you’ve been doing the past year. Then, ask yourself how you’re feeling today.

“If you’ve been active and you haven’t felt chest pain or shortness of breath, and you feel good today, shoveling is probably OK,” he said.

2. Start slow, and pay attention to your body

However, it’s important to start slow, and pay close attention to how you’re feeling as you make progress down the driveway. There’s no shame in taking breaks or asking someone else to finish the task if you need to go inside and rest.

“I know for many people you’ve been shoveling snow for years, you’re used to this, you’ve been taking care of your house, but it’s important to remember that shoveling snow provides an unusual stress on your body because it’s cold, you’re doing physical activity that starts abruptly and it may be something you haven’t done for months in the past,” Bisognano added.

He said it isn’t uncommon for the first few snow shoveling or leaf raking events of the year to get people to realize they’ve got to talk to their doctor, because they’re noticing they don’t feel the way they used to.

3. Listen to your body’s warning signs

Warning signs that something might really be wrong include the abrupt onset of chest pain or chest pressure, or severe shortness of breath. If that happens, Bisognano says you need to get to the emergency roomright away because it could be a heart attack. Luckily, there’s a lot that can be done there to treat it.

“Don’t just sit at home with a little chest pressure, a little chest pain,” he said. “That’s the time to seek medical attention and to seek it quickly so that we can give you the therapies, the good medications, the good procedures, that can solve your short-term problem as well as the therapies in the long term like treating high blood pressure, cholesterol, stopping smoking, that can do so much to improve your cardiovascular health in the long term.”

4. Avoid shoveling or raking if you have certain health conditions

Experts say people who are recovering from a heart attack or being treated for heart failure should avoid snow shoveling altogether.

“And if you’ve had some trouble in the past months, that’s a hint that you should talk to your doctor before you start the heavy task of shoveling snow, and make sure not to push yourself any further than you’re comfortable with,” Bisognano said.

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