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Written by: Katherine Elphick

Keep your heart safe when shovelling snow

Winter has arrived! And in our region that can only mean one thing — snow, snow and more snow. But before you get your shovel out and start digging, there are some chilling health hazards to keep in mind.
“Shovelling snow can be deadly to someone’s heart if it’s not healthy or fit enough to take on that level of exertion,” explains Dr. Brad Dibble, a cardiologist with PACE Cardiology and the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre in Barrie. “It’s a classic story: sudden cold weather exertion can strain the heart enough to trigger a heart attack or cause sudden cardiac death.”
Here’s why: “Shovelling heavy snow will lead to a significant increase in your blood pressure and heart rate. If there’s an unstable plaque in a heart artery, that strain may be enough to lead to plaque rupture and that’s what causes a heart attack. Even if it doesn’t, it can be enough extra work to cause angina, which is chest tightness because the heart isn’t getting as much blood flow as it needs for the extra workload,” explains Dr. Dibble.
While shovelling snow isn’t usually a problem for the healthy and fit, it can be risky for the elderly or for people with known heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smokers, or for the habitually sedentary. Snow shovelling is particularly taxing because the majority of the workload is on your arms rather than your legs.
The cardiologist offers the following heart-safe snow shovelling advice: “Talk to your doctor before shovelling heavy snow. I would advise against it if you are older, have had a heart attack, stroke, or previous angioplasty, stents in heart arteries or heart surgery until you’ve been cleared for that level of exertion. Often a stress test is a simple way to confirm you’re healthy enough to take on that level of exertion.” Instead, hire a neighbourhood teenager or a local snow plow company to take care of your driveway or walkway.
If you do shovel, “avoid shovelling first thing in the morning because that’s when your blood pressure tends to be at its highest and your blood is most prone to clotting,” he advises. Instead, warm up your muscles before shovelling by taking a quick 20 to 30 minute walk.
Furthermore, “don’t drink coffee, smoke or eat big meals before shovelling or during breaks. Coffee and tobacco are stimulants and will elevate your blood pressure and heart rate. Digesting a meal will divert blood from the heart to the stomach which isn’t good when the heart needs that blood flow for exertion.”
Additional tips include using a small shovel because it’s a lot less strain, pushing snow rather than lifting it (there are shovels made expressly for pushing snow), drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated, taking breaks, dressing in layers, and covering your mouth with a scarf because breathing in cold air can constrict blood vessels and that can add to the heart’s workload.
Finally, pay attention to your body and watch for warning signs of a heart attack such as lightheadedness, shortness of breath, or if you have a tightness or burning in your chest, neck, arms or back.
“If you experience any signs of heart attack (such as those described above), seek medical help immediately by calling 911,” advises the heart specialist.
With over 30 skilled cardiologists on staff, PACE Cardiology offers internationally acclaimed cardiac expertise in diagnostic imaging and individualized care for patients. PACE has clinics in Barrie, Newmarket, and Orillia (echo lab only). For more information call 1-888-662-0680, or visit