How to protect your heart when shoveling snow

CORP20160553_02_Snow_shoveling_blog_largeEager to get that snow off your driveway? Before you dig in, consider this: Shoveling snow can be as heart pounding as running full speed on a treadmill. And all that exertion in cold weather can strain your heart.

Snow shoveling is a known cause of heart attacks. That’s why our cardiologist advises avoiding shoveling if you have heart disease. Read on for advice for everyone from Ray Magorien, MD, on how to protect your heart while shoveling and what to do if you’ve overdone it.

Magorien, who leads a program to reduce the time it takes for heart attack emergency patients to receive specialized care at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, knows without looking outside when there’s been a significant snowfall – more patients tend to show up at his office at the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital. He says some wouldn’t be there if they’d simply slowed down while shoveling.

“If you’re shoveling fast and furious, you can put a lot of stress on your cardiovascular system, especially if it’s cold out,” he says.

Here are eight doctor recommendations to protect your heart when shoveling:

Know the warning signs of a heart attack

Shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, dizziness, irregular heartbeat and heaviness or cramping in the chest (like the feeling of a belt tightening around your ribcage) are all signs you might be having heart problems.

A special note for women

Women often under-recognize their heart attack symptoms. They might get the typical chest pain, but they often experience different signs than men, including a fluttering sensation in the chest, flu-like symptoms and pain in the back, shoulder or jaw. Read important information about how cardiovascular symptoms are different in women.

Avoid shoveling if you’ve had heart treatments, such as stents or bypass surgery.

You’re also at higher risk for a heart episode at any age while shoveling if you:

“Your body will usually send you a signal that something is awry. It could be subtle or dramatic like fatigue or shortness of breath that is out of proportion with your level of physical activity,” Dr. Magorien says.

Call for help if you have symptoms

Stop shoveling immediately if you experience any of the above symptoms.

If after three to four minutes your breathing is still off, your chest is tight or you’re still dizzy, chew an aspirin (helps prevent blood clots) and call 911. It’s vital that paramedics immediately evaluate you and do an EKG to determine whether you’re having a heart attack.

If you’re feeling pretty good after a few minutes, play it safe and take an aspirin and call your physician to set up an appointment. Sometimes an episode like this can be a red flag that you have a blockage somewhere.

Give your body time to wake up

Don’t leap out of bed and run outside to clear the snow. First, your body needs time to wake up after rest. And for some people, their heart rate and blood pressure tend to be higher first thing in the morning.

It’s not a race – take it slow

Warm up first to get your blood flowing. It can be as simple as swinging your arms or lifting your legs. Start slowly with the shoveling, moving small amounts of snow and avoiding lifting too much. Take frequent breaks.

Get water first

Drink water before you go outside because you’re going to lose fluids while shoveling. If you aren’t hydrated enough, you can really put a strain on your heart. 

Skip that big cup o’ Joe and the cigarette

Don’t go overboard with the caffeine. You might want an extra boost in tackling the snow, and caffeine in moderation is fine. But caffeine stimulates the heart, and you’re already going to be giving it a workout.

Cigarettes are another heart stimulant, so don’t smoke right before shoveling (or at all please!).

Eat light

Avoid a heavy meal beforehand because blood is diverted to the stomach, increasing your heart’s workload.

Dress in layers

Shoveling snow is a real workout and you’re probably going to sweat. To avoid getting too hot (which works the heart even harder), dress in layers and peel off a layer as needed.

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