Shoveling snow can place demands on your heart that are as significant as exercise on a treadmill. Because shoveling snow can increase your cardiac demand so significantly, it’s easy to wonder if this frequent winter activity could send you to the hospital.

Indeed, shoveling snow involves strenuous physical activity and cold temperatures. And 2019 research shows that these elements can contribute to increased risks for cardiac events. Let’s look into why this activity can be potentially hazardous and what you can do to prevent a heart attack while shoveling snow.

If you are going to shovel snow, it’s important to know your limits and recognize when your body (especially your heart) is telling you that you’re doing too much. Early warning signs of a heart attack can include:

  • mild or “stuttering” pain in the chest, neck, shoulders, left arm, or back
  • breaking out in a cold sweat
  • heart palpitations or rapid heartbeat
  • nausea

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), more serious symptoms to watch out for include:

  • intense chest pain, which may feel like a squeezing or tightness in your chest
  • feeling too dizzy to stand
  • pain that radiates down one arm or the other
  • shortness of breath

Just an FYI — pushing a snowblower can also cause significant levels of exertion. So you’re not out of the woods if you plan on switching snow shoveling for snow blowing.

Is this an emergency?

If you or someone near you is experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911 or local emergency services. The operator will give you instructions on what to do until the paramedics arrive.

Do not administer CPR unless the person having a heart attack has lost consciousness and the heart has stopped beating. If this happens, take steps immediately.

  • Place one hand on top of the other on their sternum.
  • Press rapidly — twice per second.
  • Press down 2 inches, and allow chest to rise.

CPR can be exhausting, and you may want to work in rotation with someone until help arrives. Many public spaces also have automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to help restart a heart during an attack.

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How long after shoveling snow can you have a heart attack?

There isn’t a lot of data on the specific timing of physical activities, like snow shoveling, that can lead to a heart attack. However, 2019 research indicates that marathon runners who have heart attacks tend to do so toward the last half or later portions of their marathon.

These results suggest the continued physical challenge can ultimately be too much for the heart. That’s an incentive to keep your snow shoveling time down as much as you can. You might decide to clear a small path, and not your whole driveway.

A 2018 review also identified the risks for heart attack in the hour after heavy physical exertion like shoveling snow. The less physically active you are, the more likely you are to have a heart attack in the hour after snow shoveling. Those who exercise more than 5 days per week are the least likely to have a heart attack.

The risk that a cardiovascular event will occur during strenuous physical activity is about 1 in 500,000. Activities that carry the greatest risks include:

  • highly competitive sports
  • deer hunting
  • triathlon events
  • snow removal (shoveling)

For the most part, you don’t have to worry about the risks of a cardiac event if you are healthy with no known heart disease history. However, if you have a history of coronary artery disease, you could be at a greater risk of heart problems, including:

Shoveling snow is a vigorous physical activity. According to 2019 research, exercising very hard (like you do when shoveling snow) can increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen requirements of your body. In some cases, the demand is the same as if you were running full speed on a treadmill.

The AHA says very cold temperatures can also cause vasoconstriction, or tightening of blood vessels. Vasoconstriction can affect blood flow to your heart. Winter weather can also raise demands on the heart because your body increases circulation as a way to try and keep you warm.

The results can be chest pain and extreme shortness of breath. The chest pain is a sign of ischemia or affected oxygen-rich blood flow to the heart. If you already experience chest pain with physical activity — a condition known as angina — you especially don’t want to put yourself at risk by shoveling snow.

If you don’t have a history of heart disease or chest pain symptoms, there can still be some risk in shoveling snow. This is because exercise-related deaths from activities like shoveling snow are related to the rupture of plaque in the heart’s arteries or a supply-demand mismatch of oxygen delivery to the heart.

Plaque can build up over time from conditions like high cholesterol. Extreme physical activity or physical stress can cause plaque to break off, sometimes leading to a heart attack when shoveling snow.

You can reduce your risks of chest pain and cardiac-related events while shoveling snow. Some of these steps begin long before the first snowfall.

According to 2019 research, you can:

  • Engage in regular physical activity, after consulting with your doctor. This can help you avoid a sedentary lifestyle, which puts you at greatest risk for cardiac events.
  • Perform a warmup before starting to shovel snow. This could include taking a walk at an intermediate pace, engaging in light stretching, or doing some other mild physical activity to warm up your muscles and start your heart pumping at a slightly faster rate.
  • Push the snow with your shovel instead of lifting it and throwing it. This causes less exertion.
  • Recognize when your body is being pushed to a limit. Stop shoveling snow if you experience chest pain, feel lightheaded, are short of breath, or have heart palpitations.
  • Perform a cooldown after you are finished shoveling. This involves mild physical activity to gradually help your heart rate slow to its previous level.

Listening to your body and only doing what you are able to do activity-wise is vital to keeping healthy when shoveling snow, especially as you get older.

Research from 2019 shows there is an inverse (opposite) risk for heart attacks from shoveling snow the more active you are. This means if you aren’t active, and choose to start shoveling snow, you’re at greater risk of a heart attack.

Here’s an example. In a large meta-analysis from 2011, men who were not physically active were 56 times more at risk of cardiac arrest from intense physical activity. Men who were very physically active were only 5 times more at risk of cardiac arrest.

What can you take away from these and other similar studies? Think less about age and more about your physical activity status before you get out there, shovel in hand. If you aren’t engaging in regular physical activity, snow shoveling may be best left to someone who is.

Snow shoveling is hard work. It’s such hard work that it can result in a cardiac event, especially if you aren’t very physically active or have a history of heart disease and chest pain. Take steps to minimize your risks by staying active and call 911 or local emergency services if you do have symptoms of a heart attack.