The Risks of Shoveling Snow

Experts says there's more risks to shoveling snow than just back pain.

shoveling snowThe joys of living in New England. Photo via Shutterstock

We’ve only had a few major snow days so far this season, and we weren’t expecting to have to shovel this morning. Shoveling and back pain have always gone hand-in-hand, but it turns out there are more risks to shoveling snow then you think.

Dr. Robert Yeh, a cardiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Corrigan Minehan Heart Center, says that the cold weather can also increase the risk for a heart attack.

“The cold weather may cause some peripheral blood vessels to close down to retain warmth in the body’s core, which in turn might lead to an increase in blood pressure during shoveling,” Yeh says.

Unfortunately, during winter months, shoveling snow may be the most intensive exertion that some people do over the course of an entire year. If you don’t normally exercise, this can be a problem. “It is also an activity that requires that people ‘bear down’, which could raise blood pressure and increase the likelihood of a coronary event,” Yeh says.

Yeh also says that individuals with known heart disease or patients with coronary risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol are at an increased risk for having chest pain or heart attacks, particularly when they exert themselves. If you are not accustomed to doing significant exertion, you may want to hire someone to do your shoveling. “At-risk patients should have a conversation with their doctors about their ability to shovel snow,” Yeh says.

The reason why shoveling is risky is that we hold our breath when lifting a large shovel full of snow, which according to Yeh is called, valsalva. And don’t think that if you spent the morning shoveling that you are off the hook for your daily workout. “In that way, [shoveling is] similar to weight lifting, it is not a particularly good from of exercise from a cardiovascular perspective. It is also a very intermittent form of exercise, and is certainly not a replacement for daily walking or jogging.”

So be careful out there when shoveling. And when you are done, enjoy the snow by trying cross country skiing, which has amazing health benefits. Or try these exercise before you hit the slopes to improve your winter sports game.