The age at which you should stop shoveling snow is much sooner than you think

By | March 4, 2024

An “age is just a number” mentality is great when it comes to things like writing your first novel later in life or marrying your soulmate who happens to be younger than you.

But one place where it doesn’t apply is when it comes to shoveling snow, which so many of us do every winter: the incidence of sudden heart attack spikes in men of a certain age by about 16% when it snows , especially if it’s a big storm. That led to a 34% increase in deaths, according to a major 20-year Canadian study. (The study authors didn’t see the same connection in women, as they noted; apparently men tend to clean the driveway, especially when a snowpocalypse occurs.)

Why is snow removal so dangerous for some?

Let’s start with the fact that wet snow is incredibly heavy. A survey of men found that the average shovel of snow weighed 16 pounds. “That’s 16 pounds per scoop, 12 lifts per minute for 10 minutes,” says Barry Franklin, Ph.D., spokesperson for the American Heart Association and director of Preventive Cardiology and Cardiac Rehabilitation, Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, MI. That amounts to almost 2,000 pounds, the weight of a subcompact SUV. Another study conducted years ago by Franklin and his team found that a shoveler’s heart rate increases to 97% of his maximum heart rate, more than when the same person does a treadmill test at maximum exertion.

Second, snowstorms happen when it’s, well, cold. When you breathe in that cold air, your blood vessels constrict, making it harder for blood to circulate through your body. This increases your blood pressure, making it even harder for your heart to get enough blood, he says.

But what makes snow removal so dangerous has to do with the activity itself. That’s why the American Heart Association has worked to raise awareness of the unique risks. This is why:

  • Sliding is a static effort, meaning you stand in one spot and use your upper body to lift piles of heavy, wet snow. “With this type of exercise, you’ll see sudden, large increases in heart rate and blood pressure,” says Franklin.

  • Lifting with your arms puts a lot more strain on your heart than lifting the same weight with your legs, says Franklin.

  • When lifting and pushing, we often have to hold our breath while exerting ourselves, which also leads to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

  • Standing still while you’re shoveling or using the snow blower means “your heart is running like hell, but you’re not moving your legs, which causes blood to pool in the lower extremities,” Franklin explains. That is, it does not come back to your heart so easily.

  • And then there is the narrowing of the arteries of your heart because it is cold; these are the size of cooked spaghetti to begin with, he says. This increases blood pressure and means that less blood reaches your heart.

What does age have to do with it?

“People don’t get into trouble in their 20s or 30s because they haven’t developed coronary artery disease,” says Franklin. “But if they are 45 to 50 years or older, with known or hidden heart disease, especially people who are habitually sedentary, this activity is very dangerous.”

Notice he said “hidden” heart disease: many of us have heart disease that we are not aware of; if we didn’t notice the symptoms, we would have no reason to be diagnosed. “If you’re over 50 and grew up eating McDonald’s and Ben & Jerry’s, you probably have heart disease; that’s just a fact,” says Franklin.

man with snow shovel cleans sidewalk

SanyaSM – Getty Images

The same goes if you have diabetes or high blood pressure — both risk factors for heart disease — even if you haven’t had heart symptoms like chest pain. “Sometimes the first and last symptom of heart disease is cardiac arrest,” he says.

Of course, there are physically fit, middle-aged people who can handle this level of exertion better. “I can’t possibly come up with a cutoff for age and gender because people vary enormously,” says Franklin. “All I can say is that if you exercise regularly, have normal cholesterol levels and don’t smoke, it is intuitive that you are at lower risk, even though there is no such thing as no risk. Our ability to predict remains imperfect.”

As for the risk for women, Dr. Franklin that it would be difficult to prove that snow shoveling is just as dangerous for women of a certain age, because the relevant research has only been done on men, and at a population level, fewer women appear to do it. spade. Still, “women, like men, are certainly susceptible to cardiovascular disease, and heart attacks in women, including some fatalities, have been reported after shoveling snow,” he says.

Is there a safer way to clear your driveway?

Yes!

  • Pay the neighbor’s kid. This is a must for people in their seventies and eighties. Even if you’ve done it before without any problems, and especially if you’ve ever smoked or have other cardiovascular disease risks, it’s time to hang up the shovel, says Franklin.

  • Push, don’t lift. Pushing snow off your stairs with your shovel instead of hoisting it up, Franklin says, puts less strain on the heart.

  • Pay attention to the perceived temperature. If the actual temperature is very cold, your vasoconstriction will be worse. Always dress in layers, with a hat, gloves and a scarf.

  • Avoid heavy meals, smoking or alcohol before and after shoveling.

  • Start and stop. Adopt a work-rest approach, he says, which will lower your heart rate and blood pressure again. “Don’t try to do everything at once.”

  • Use an electric snow blower. This is still risky if you have heart disease or other health problems, but since you’re moving, it’s a bit safer, Franklin says.

  • Don’t ignore the symptoms. “If you have pain or discomfort anywhere from the belly button, stop,” says Franklin. And if you feel signs of a heart attack, call 911 or go to the emergency department immediately.

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