With the shorter nights and winter soon upon us, many of us can expect the snow to be falling soon. Winter is a great time to enjoy a different set of outdoor activities such as skiing, snowshoeing, skating and tobogganing. Many of us will also have to spend some time getting out a shovel and digging their car, driveway or sidewalk, out from the snow.

Shoveling snow is a great activity, it works both your upper body and lower body, and as mentioned earlier, these sorts of activities done regularly can reduce your risk for heart disease and premature death. However, every year, admissions to hospital emergency rooms go up with people experiencing chest pain or heart attack after snowfalls, most likely due to the increased amount of snow shovelling.

So why is this? Well, shovelling snow makes for a perfect storm of conditions.

First, it’s done in the cold weather. Being exposed to cold weather causes our arteries to constrict at a time when we want them to open to allow more blood flow to our heart and working muscles. This can lead to higher blood pressure and poor blood flow to the heart resulting in greater work for the heart. Indeed, colder weather puts us at greater risk for heart attacks and stroke.

Second, when we’re shovelling snow, we’re often in a hurry, like trying to get our car out to get to work or school. This compounds the first point regarding exposure to cold weather in that we often do not allow our bodies to warm-up like we would when exercising.

Lastly, shovelling snow is a vigorous activity requiring as much effort as a brisk walk or light run. So we can’t just brush it off as a simple chore. For many, it’s as much effort, or more, than done in the gym.

This increased risk for a heart attack occurs in people with and without heart disease, and often the first symptom many people have of heart disease can be a deadly heart attack.

We often underestimate the effort required to do activities that we might view as “chores” such as snow shovelling and because of this, we don’t prepare physically or mentally for them. This also goes for other activities like cutting the grass or raking leaves. I’ve come across many heart patients who have found out that their heart rate gets higher when doing things like shoveling and cutting the grass than when doing their regular exercise routine.

There are many things we can do to eliminate the risk from snow shovelling:

  • Be regularly active. Being active and physically fit greatly reduces the chance of heart problems during physical activity. This is true of shovelling snow as inactive and sedentary people are at greater risk.
  • Warm-up beforehand. This doesn’t mean you have to walk around the block or do jumping-jacks on your front yard, but start slowly. Perhaps use a smaller shovel at first to keep the weight down (this is a must if you live in a place like Vancouver that gets soggy, heavy snow like mashed potatoes).
  • Give yourself time to do it and don’t hurry. Alternatively, you can shovel the snow before it accumulates too much and do smaller amounts throughout the day- remember, this is just like exercising.
  • Involve the whole family and have fun with it.
  • If you do have a heart rate or some other activity monitor, strap it on and see how high your heart rate gets compared to when you exercise.

Shovelling snow is an activity that many of us will have to do at some point each winter, and whether it is us or a loved one doing it, it’s important to recognize that it is more than just a chore, it’s a way to be active.

In the next blog I will discuss how to be active during the holidays.

This is Part 13 in a series of blog posts entitled Being Active While Living an Active Life.