Shoveling snow can be dangerous at any age. According to the American Heart Association (AMA), people who are outdoors in cold weather should avoid sudden exertion, like lifting a heavy shovel full of snow. Even walking through heavy, wet snow can strain a person's heart.
"Fifteen minutes of snow shoveling is considered moderate physical activity even for young adults,” states St. Mary Mercy Hospital Cardiologist Roy Misirliyan, MD. “The combination of exertion, cold air and hypothermia puts a large strain on the heart. People with a history of coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes and tobacco use should consider alternatives to shoveling snow," he adds.
People with coronary heart disease often suffer chest pain or discomfort called angina pectoris when they're in cold weather. Some studies suggest that harsh winter weather may increase a person's risk of heart attack due to overexertion. “Cold air makes breathing more difficult and puts more strain on the body and heart, so precautions should be taken, especially for those with a history of heart disease,” adds Dr. Misirliyan.
Always dress properly for the cold weather. The AMA recommends that to keep warm, wear layers of clothing. This traps air between layers, forming a protective insulation. Also, wear a hat. Much of your body's heat can be lost through your head. And ears are especially prone to frostbite. Keep your hands and feet warm, too, as they tend to lose heat rapidly.
If there is no alternative to shoveling snow, treat it as any other vigorous exercise. “Try to warm up, take frequent breaks and stay hydrated,” says Dr. Misirliyan. Also know the warning signs of a heart attack. “Stop immediately and call 911 for emergency assistance if you have symptoms of nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, pain in the chest, shoulder, neck or arm,” he says.