This winter has brought some of the coldest temperatures seen in decades. In North Dakota and other northern territories, temperatures dropped below negative 40! At that temperature, your body can develop frostbite within minutes.
The season also brought snow to some unlikely places. Northwestern Washington, an area on the coast that very rarely sees any snow, saw a winter storm in early February that brought nearly two feet!
The weather is unpredictable, at best, and it’s important to understand the way snow and cold weather can affect you – especially if you do the snow shoveling. Surprisingly, shoveling snow in cold weather is among the most dangerous winter activities. Before bundling up and heading outside, here are some things you should know:
Shoveling snow can cause cardiac arrest.
When Winter Storm Jonas hit the East Coast in January, 48 people died, 17 from cardiac arrest due to exertion in cold temperatures. This isn’t something that most people think about, but heart attacks are not uncommon when shoveling snow.
Whether you’re removing snow the old-fashioned way or pushing a heavy snow blower, this strenuous activity causes your blood pressure and heart rate to spike. At the same time, the frigid cold air constricts blood vessels, which means less oxygen reaches your heart. When combined, these two factors are deadly.
Research from the BBC shows that more than 1,600 people died from shoveling snow between 1990 and 2006, which is a little more than 100 deaths per year. “I believe we lose hundreds of people each year because of this activity,” cardiologist Barry Franklin, of William Beaumont Hospital, Michigan told the BBC.
Most people don’t recognize just how much effort it takes to engage in snow removal. “Snow shoveling can be more strenuous than exercising full throttle on a treadmill,” says a health sheet from Metro Health. “While this may not be a problem if an individual is healthy and fit, it can be dangerous if not.”
Who’s at risk for a heart attack?
“People at greatest risk are those who are habitually sedentary with known or suspected coronary disease, who go out once a year to clear snow,” says Franklin. “People don’t have any idea how taxing it is on the heart.”
You might have a higher risk for a heart attack while shoveling snow if you:
- have known heart disease
- have previously experienced a heart attack
- have high blood pressure or cholesterol
- have a sedentary lifestyle or are otherwise out of shape
- are over the age of 55
Anyone who fits the bill should talk to their doctor before shoveling to make sure they can perform the activity safely.
How can I protect my heart while shoveling snow in the cold weather?
Though some people should not shovel, no matter the precautions, those in general good health shouldn’t have a problem removing snow. Still, it doesn’t hurt to enact some safety measures.
- Avoid heavy meals before exercising in the cold. Greasy and fatty foods add extra weight to your heart and can increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Take breaks every five minutes to rest and warm up. Don’t be ashamed that you’re stopping frequently. It’s dangerous to work hard in the cold, and you’ll be glad you took this precaution.
- Trade your snow shovel in for a snow thrower. You’ll reduce strain by lifting less. If you can’t get a snow machine, use a smaller shovel to reduce the weight.
- Drink less alcohol and avoid it before and after shoveling snow.
- Cover your head and neck. About 50 percent of your body’s heat is exhausted through the head and neck. A hat and scarf can trap it inside and keep you healthier.
- Recognize the warning signs. Pain in your chest, shortness of breath, discomfort in your extremities, or intense shivering can all be signs of a heart attack. If you feel these warning signs, head to the emergency room immediately.
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