Shoveling: Can your heart take it?

Winter is around the corner and so is snow. Lifting, pushing and plowing snow can be more hazardous to your health than you think. 

Before you pick up your shovel and dig in, heed the advice of McGill University Health Centre Emergency Room Physician Dr. Mitchell Shulman.

“Shoveling snow, especially heavy, wet snow is really a lot of work,” says Shulman, Associate Professor of Medicine at McGill. 

“It’s a huge exercise load on the body and it is upper body work.  Many people, especially couch potatoes, do not really have the upper body strength and the general conditioning to do it.”

Shulman warns snow shoveling can trigger various health problems, including a heart attack, particularly for those who are out of shape or who have already suffered a heart attack or who have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes or who smoke.

“If you’re at higher risk of a heart attack and you go out and start shoveling cold, you’re going to really increase the odds that something nasty will happen,” he says.

Shulman’s six shovel smart tips

  1. Just don’t do it
    If you’re at higher risk of a heart attack you should very seriously consider hanging up your shovel. Shulman suggests hiring the teenager down the street or hiring a snow removal service.
  2. Warm up
    Shulman says gently warming up your muscles before you dig in to the snow bank will prevent injuries and cut down on post shoveling aches and pains.   
  3. Dress for the weather
    Wear layers so you can regulate your body temperature. You don’t want to get overheated nor do you want to get too cold. When it’s extra cold, wear a muffler or scarf over your mouth so the air you breathe is warmed up a bit before it hits your lungs. If it’s icy out, wear boots that give you good traction or consider adding snow grippers or crampons.
  4. Be ready
    Cold air can trigger breathing problems. If you use a puffer for asthma or conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), make sure your puffer stays warm. Tuck it into an inner pocket where your body heat will keep it warm and ready to use if needed.
  5. Pace yourself
    Shoveling a little at a time is a good idea. If you have to get your car out of the driveway, clear that area first and tackle the rest later. Take frequent breaks whether you think you need them or not. Pacing yourself will diminish your chances of slipping, falling or pulling a muscle.
  6. Use the right equipment
    Use a small shovel so you aren’t lifting too much at once. For those who push rather than lift the snow, Shulman says this still requires exertion. He says the same applies if you use a snow blower. Pushing a machine is heavy work so you still need to pace yourself. If need to make an adjustment or repair on your snow blower, turn it off and unplug it before you do any work.

As Canadians we consider ourselves winter warriors but Shulman says it doesn’t hurt to remember that anything you do in the cold puts more strain on your body. Keep these tips in mind next time you brave the snow.

If you think you might be having a heart attack, Shulman says a quick response is essential.

Symptoms can include one or more of the following

  • Feeling light headed (can be a more frequent symptom for women or people with diabetes)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Oppressive feeling in the chest or stomach, almost like indigestion
  • Pain in the chest
  • Pain that travels to the arm or neck
  • Feeling faint
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Breaking into a cold sweat

You might not have all of these symptoms. You may have only one or two but if you stop what you are doing and the symptoms do not immediately go away, call 9-1-1. Next, if you do NOT have an allergy to aspirin or an ulcer or any bleeding, Shulman recommends chewing on a baby aspirin or regular one.



McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE)

Desautels Faculty of Management

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