Shovel Snow Safely by Knowing Your Heart Disease Risk Factors

Northwestern Medicine
Health and Wellness January 05, 2015

The temperatures are well below freezing and Chicago’s famous snow is starting to accumulate. Snow belt residents can use the winter weather as a reminder to be aware of any risk they may have for heart disease, and to take appropriate precautions when shoveling snow, Northwestern Medicine® experts say.

Common risk factors include hypertension, obesity, diabetes, family history of heart disease, smoking and inactivity, said Micah Eimer, MD, co-director of the Northwestern Medicine Sports Cardiology Program.


 “It's the same kind of trouble you get into when you've never exercised before and all of a sudden you decide to start training for a marathon – it's completely analogous,” said Eimer, who is also the medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Glenview Outpatient Center. “If you are not accustomed to exercise, shoveling a driveway or sidewalk covered in heavy, wet snow is not the place to start.”

Eimer recommends speaking with your physician about possible risk factors and taking the following precautions when hauling out your trusty shovel:

  • Dress appropriately: Cold temperatures slow circulation to the body’s extremities. Wear layered clothing, gloves and a hat to help maintain body temperature and circulation.
  • Don’t procrastinate: The longer the snow sits on the ground, the more compact it becomes. The more compact the snow is, the more exertion it takes to move it. Get out there at first snowfall and plan to make repeat trips.
  • Take it easy: Start slowly, take breaks as necessary and try not to do the entire job at once.
  • Hydrate: Your body needs hydration, even in frigid weather. Drink water regularly to prevent dehydration and don’t drink alcohol before shoveling.
  • Avoid heavy meals: Digestion strains the heart, so don’t eat a meal before shoveling. Choose a protein-rich snack instead for a quick energy source.
  • Lift small amounts: Use a small shovel and lift with your legs and buttocks instead of your back to avoid strain on the heart, back and neck. Aim to clear four to six inches per shovel load.
  • Listen to your body: Your body knows best. If you are feeling winded or overexerted while shoveling, go inside and rest. Be on the lookout in particular for shortness of breath, chest, throat or arm discomfort or tightness, or lightheadedness. Seek medical attention if those symptoms persist.

For more tips on managing heart disease, visit the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. To take an online personalized heart health and risk factor assessment, click here.

The Northwestern Medicine Cardiology and Heart Surgery Program at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, ranked 13th nationally in the 2014-15 U.S. News & World Report “Best Hospitals” list released in July 2014. For the seventh consecutive year, the report ranked BCVI the top heart program in Chicago, Illinois and the Midwest.  

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