Can shovelling snow cause a heart attack? What Canadians need to know

·4-min read
Shovelling snow can increase your risk of heart attack. (Image via Getty Images)
Shovelling snow can increase your risk of heart attack. (Image via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

With a winter storm warning in effect for most of Ontario, many Canadians are bundling up and bracing themselves to take on the task of clearing snow. However, before you head outdoors to work on your driveway or walkway, experts are urging people to be mindful of the heath risks associated with shovelling snow. 

While many of us know to be aware of the physical exertion shovelling snow can have on your back, strenuous physical activity combined with cold temperatures can have serious implications on your heart.

Every year thousands of Canadians are hospitalized for injuries sustained while shovelling snow. Researchers have found that the physical strain of removing snow can trigger serious and fatal health incidents like heart attacks, in addition to more common ailments like back and slip and fall injuries.

A study published to the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows a link between heavy snowstorms and heart attacks that either result in death or hospitalization, especially in men. Between 1981 and 2014, researchers in Quebec found 65,000 people died from heart attacks and 128,000 were hospitalized during or after heavy snowfalls.

Experts advise people to follow certain steps when it comes to shovelling snow and to seek help when you need it.

Can shovelling snow cause a heart attack?

Although the act of shovelling snow isn't necessarily bad for your health, a combination of factors can increase your risk of heart attack. 

Experts reveal who is at risk of experiencing a heart attack while shovelling snow. (Image via Getty Images)
Experts reveal who is at risk of experiencing a heart attack while shovelling snow. (Image via Getty Images)

“With snow shovelling you go from nothing to everything in a matter of seconds and that challenges your cardiovascular system much more than if you do aerobic exercise for example walking or going to the gym,” says Dr. Adrian Baranchuk, a cardiologist with the Canadian Cardiovascular Society.

The overexertion of shovelling, especially if you're not physically fit and used to exercise, combined with cold temperatures which increase your blood pressure can put a strain on your heart.

Who is the most at-risk of heart attack while shovelling snow?

According to the Cleveland Clinic people with a history of heart disease and those who are over the age of 55 are at an increased risk of heart attacks while shovelling snow. 

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“In our research we found if you have family history of early cardiovascular disease your risk of presenting a snow shovelling heart attack event increases four times,” Baranchuk explains in an interview with Yahoo Canada

Research also shows men have suffered from more heart attacks than women during or after shovelling the snow, but Baranchuk says it may be because men are more commonly the ones doing that type of work.

If any of these apply to you, you should refrain from shovelling snow altogether, asking for help or hiring a younger neighbour to help with snow removal can help minimize your risk. 

Knowing the signs of a heart attack can help potentially save a life this winter.  (Image via Getty Images)
Knowing the signs of a heart attack can help potentially save a life this winter. (Image via Getty Images)

Symptoms of heart attacks you should look out for

The next time you pick up that shovel, make sure to play it safe and watch out for any signs that your heart may be in distress.

Aside from the most known common signs like chest pain, shortness of breath and pain radiating towards your neck and left arm, people can also experience light headedness, stomach pain, cold sweats, nausea or vomiting when experiencing a heart attack. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop what you’re doing and call 911 to seek medical attention immediately. 

According to Baranchuk, the first two hours after a heart attack are critical. However, many people delay getting help, which greatly affects the level of treatment doctors can provide. 

“The impact in the short and long term, the consequences of that are dramatically associated with the time elapsed since the initiation of the symptoms to our ability to open the artery,” he explains. “If the patient doesn’t call early enough then all those minutes account for our inability to reinstitute the flow in the vessel and to keep the patient normalized.”

Hiring a neighbour to help shovel your snow can help minimize your risk of injury including heart attack. (Image via Getty Images)
Hiring a neighbour to help shovel your snow can help minimize your risk of injury including heart attack. (Image via Getty Images)

Tips for how and when to shovel the snow safely

If you’re going to shovel snow, don’t do it all at once. Shovel one section of the driveway, take a break and go inside to warm up and hydrate before going back outside.

It’s also recommended to stretch before getting started and to avoid shovelling on a full stomach. 

If it’s possible, Baranchuk recommends to shovelling the snow in the afternoon or evening rather than in the early morning.

“That is a well-known time of the day where there is significant peak of heart attacks,” he says.

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