Strenuous physical activity in cold temperatures can lead to heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems. Knowing your limits can help you stay safe.

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Removing snow from your driveway, walkway, front porch, or anywhere else around your home is often an unavoidable winter chore. But picking up a shovel and trying to move a lot of snow yourself can put your heart at risk.

A 2020 study from the American Heart Association found that snow shoveling may place extra stress on the heart, especially in people who aren’t used to regular physical exercise. The lead author of the study estimates that hundreds of people die during or just after snow removal in the United States each year.

Another study found that, compared to no snowfall, heavy snow of 7–8 inches was linked to 16% higher odds of people assigned male at birth being admitted to the hospital with heart attacks, and a 34% increased risk of these people dying from a heart attack.

This article takes a closer look at why snow shoveling increases your risk for heart attack and what you can do to reduce your risk.

Before you even start shoveling, simply being out in the cold is already setting the stage for heart trouble. Cold temperatures increase your blood pressure and constrict (narrow) your blood vessels, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout your body.

When you add in the physical strain of lifting a shovel full of snow and tossing it to the side, you have a prescription for a heart attack or other heart problem.

The nature of shoveling snow also contributes to heart attack risk. Unlike many other types of physical activity or exercise, snow shoveling primarily uses the arms.

Strenuous activity involving the arms, as opposed to the legs, places a greater burden on the heart, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

And standing in one place without much leg movement means blood tends to pool in the legs and feet, rather than circulating through the heart and lungs to keep oxygenated blood flowing throughout the body.

Heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems are more common in winter and summer. A 2022 study suggests that exposure to extreme temperatures (cold and hot) is associated with a higher risk of death from:

Also, in cold temperatures, you may not have the same sense of intense physical exertion that you might experience in a hotter environment.

Likewise, snow shoveling may not seem as challenging an activity as running or playing sports. However, to the AHA, within just 2 minutes of snow shoveling, a person’s heart rate can jump to 85% of the heart’s maximal rate — a level usually associated with intense aerobic activity.

Reaching this maximum heart rate can be OK for those who are used to exercising at this level. But in sedentary people, this can put increased strain on the heart, which can lead to a heart attack.

If you have to shovel snow, there are many precautions you can take to lower your risk of a heart attack or other medical emergency. For example:

  • Avoid shoveling right after eating or smoking, as those activities drive up your blood pressure.
  • Break up tasks such as snow shoveling into smaller, shorter chores to avoid prolonged exposure to the cold and too much exertion in one session. Shovel one small area at a time with frequent breaks in between.
  • Push the snow, rather than lift it, if possible, as this puts less burden on your cardiovascular system and muscles.
  • Shovel snow when it is powdery and lighter rather than when it has become wetter, icier, and heavier.
  • Use a small shovel, and don’t fill it all the way. Also, shovels with plastic blades weigh less than those with metal blades.
  • Wear layers appropriate for the temperatures, and be prepared to remove a layer if you feel you’re getting too warm.
  • Whenever possible, wait to shovel until when it has become a little warmer outside.

People can also meet with their doctors to discuss their risk of heart disease over the winter. They can get a stress test or other cardiac testing that can predict their risk of having a cardiac event.

They could also be entered into a cardiac rehab program that can help increase their exercise tolerance and, in effect, lower their risk of a cardiac event.

At what age should you stop shoveling snow?

Your cardiovascular fitness level may be just as important as your age when determining how safe it is to shovel snow. The National Safety Council suggests that if you’re over 40 and don’t exercise much, or at all, then consider hiring someone to shovel snow this winter.

Older individuals who exercise regularly with no chest pain and no history of heart trouble should decide for themselves but always take precautions such as doing a little shoveling at a time and taking frequent breaks.

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If shoveling snow is in your future, make sure you and others in your household know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. They include, but aren’t limited to:

  • chest pain, tightness, or pressure
  • cold sweat
  • fatigue
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • pain in the jaw, neck, shoulders, back, or arms

It’s important to take the risk of snow shoveling seriously. If you’ve shoveled snow hundreds of times through the years without a problem, that doesn’t mean the next time won’t put you in the emergency room.

Be honest with yourself about your fitness level and the weather and snow conditions outside. If hiring someone to remove snow is a reasonable expense, then consider it an investment in your health.