“There is a connection between extremely cold weather, snow shoveling and heart attack,” according to Edward Geltman, MD, director of the heart failure program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.
“The association between heart attack and physical exertion in cold weather, like shoveling snow, is very well-described,” says Dr. Geltman. “People are increasing their oxygen demand — perhaps in a way they haven’t done for a while — and they expose their hearts to a level of physical stress they’re not used to.”
While there are no national statistics on shoveling deaths, a 1993 study in The New England Journal of Medicine looked at 1,228 heart-attack victims and found that out-of-shape people increased their risk of a heart attack when they shoveled snow. Adding in the fact people are overdoing overexerting in extremely cold weather and it may be a recipe for strenuous exercise their hearts may not be ready for.
Dr. Geltman says the cold weather worsens the situation by constricting blood vessels — or making them “vasoconstricted.”
“The cold weather causes their arteries and their peripheral arteries to clamp down to keep them from losing heat,” says Dr. Geltman. “When you vasoconstrict like that, it increases the work of the heart.
“So you have a double increase in the work of the heart—in part because of the vasoconstriction, in part because of the physical activity,” he says. “Some people who aren’t used to that will sometimes go out and overdo it.”
Dr. Geltman recommends people who haven’t had regular exercise take the offer from neighborhood children who offer to shovel snow.