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IU Health cardiologist: Snow shoveling could trigger a heart attack

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Before you grab that snow shovel and start clearing the sidewalk, take a moment to think about your heart.

Snow shoveling places extra stress on the heart, especially among people who aren’t used to regular exercise, according to the American Heart Association. It’s also dangerous for people who have heart disease, whether they are aware of the disease or not.

Dr. William Gill, a cardiologist with IU Health in Indianapolis, compares shoveling snow to starting a “vigorous workout program inside a freezer.” That can raise blood pressure and your heart rate to dangerous levels.

The risk of heart attack or sudden cardiac event increases the older or less fit you are, according to Gill.

“We should plan not to tackle the entire driveway at once, for sure! We should dress for the weather. Get yourself into good warm clothes and make sure you’re well hydrated,” Gill said.

Gill warns against shoveling snow after a large meal.

“Shoveling snow after a large meal is probably not a good idea because the body is busy digesting food at that time, also requiring the heart to do more work — for instance, pumping blood to intestines. If we wouldn’t go exercise after a big meal, we probably shouldn’t go and shovel snow after eating a big meal.”

Individuals at higher risk of a cardiac event triggered by shoveling snow include:

  • People who are sedentary or obese
  • Current or former smokers
  • People with high cholesterol or high blood pressure
  • People with a history of heart attack or stroke

The most important thing to do when shoveling snow is to be aware of the dangers, be prepared, and take short breaks, according to Gill. He says pushing the snow with a shovel is better than physically lifting and throwing it.

When to call 911

If you’re shoveling snow and experience chest pain or pressure, lightheadedness, heart palpitations, or irregular heart rhythms, stop what you’re doing immediately. Call 911 if the symptoms don’t subside shortly after you stop shoveling.

Signs of a heart attack include shortness of breath, nausea, a cold sweat, and discomfort in your chest which may travel to the neck, jawline, upper back, or down the arms.

If you see someone collapse while shoveling snow, call 911 right away.

Learn more about cold weather and cardiovascular disease at the American Heart Association website.