Heart attacks are more common in winter, and doctors have several theories why.
Cold weather can cause blood vessels to constrict. That can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk for a heart attack and stroke. Your body can lose heat quickly in winter, and your heart has to work harder to maintain a healthy body temperature.
Shoveling snow may seem like a great way to workout. And it can be. A 185-pound person can expect to burn about 266 calories after just a half-hour of shoveling, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But your heart will work harder because your body is trying to stay warm in cold weather. And there’s the danger.
Cold weather plus shoveling snow raises heart rates and blood pressure more quickly and dramatically than other types of exercise. Your heart may not be able to handle it, especially if it isn’t used to getting a hard workout on a daily basis.
Shoveling snow requires using arm muscles that are not usually used in many types of exercise. If you are usually sedentary most of the time, especially in winter, getting off the couch and grabbing the shovel may not be a smart move.
Every year, about 805,000 Americans have a heart attack.
More specifically, Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., writes on the Harvard Health Publishing website that “about 100 people—mostly men —die during or just after shoveling snow each year in the US.”
The same website states: “For snowfalls of more than eight inches, there was a 16% increase in hospital admissions for men compared to days with no snow.”
Ironically, research shows that the same is not true for women. There doesn’t seem to be as strong of a link between snowfall and heart attacks among women.
What can you do?
- Wear your mask — yes, still.
- Wear layers and hats, gloves and heavy socks when it’s cold.
- Take breaks indoors if you’re spending time outdoors in extreme weather.
- Avoid drinking alcohol to excess, which can make you feel warmer than you really are.
- Shovel snow and ice only for short periods of time. If you have any health condition, ask your doctor whether it’s even safe for you to shovel.
- Wash your hands frequently. Respiratory infections, especially COVID-19 and flu, are still spreading.
If you have non-life-threatening symptoms of a cardiac condition, call your doctor promptly. If you think you are having a heart attack or stroke, call 911 and get to the nearest emergency room.