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Snow shoveling: Know your heart risks and stay safe

A winter storm could be right around the corner, and as people dig out, there are some health hazards to keep in mind.

The American Heart Association is reminding people that winter weather and common activities such as snow shoveling can increase a person’s risk of a heart attack. The combination of colder temperatures and physical exertion increases the heart’s workload.

Heart-related incidents and deaths occur more often in winter.

People who are outdoors in cold weather should avoid sudden exertion, such as lifting a heavy shovel packed with snow. Even just walking through heavy, wet snow or snow drifts can strain the heart because most people are not conditioned to the physical stress of simple activities when temperatures drop.

The American Heart Association reminds the public to prepare for the outdoors, even if it is just a few minutes of exposure to the cold weather, by wearing layers of clothing. Air is trapped between layers, forming a protective insulation for your body. Also, wear a hat or head scarf as body heat can be lost through the head, and ears are especially prone to frostbite. Wear gloves or mittens on your hands and thick socks on your feet as hands and feet also tend to lose heat rapidly. Always change out of wet clothing. Dressing improperly can lead to hypothermia, a potentially deadly problem that means the body temperature has fallen below 95 degrees. It occurs when your body cannot produce enough energy to keep the internal body temperature warm enough.

Children and the elderly are at special risk in winter weather as well as people with a history of heart-related problems.

To help make snow removal safer, the American Heart Association offers these practical tips for heart-safe snow shoveling and outdoor activities:

  • Give yourself a break. Take frequent rest breaks during shoveling so you don’t overstress your heart. Pay attention to how your body feels during the breaks.

  • Don’t eat a heavy meal prior or soon after shoveling. Eating a large meal can put an extra load on your heart.

  • Use a small shovel or consider a snow thrower. The act of lifting heavy snow can raise blood pressure acutely during the lift. It is safer to lift smaller amounts more times, than to lug a few huge shovelfuls of snow. When possible, simply push the snow.

  • Learn the heart attack warning signs and listen to your body, but remember this: Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out (tell a doctor about your symptoms). Minutes matter! Fast action can save lives — maybe your own. Don’t wait more than five minutes to call 9-1-1

  • Don’t drink alcoholic beverages before or immediately after shoveling. Alcohol may increase a person’s sensation of warmth and may cause them to underestimate the extra strain their body is under in the cold.

  • Be aware of the dangers of hypothermia. Heart failure causes most deaths in hypothermia. To prevent hypothermia, dress in layers of warm clothing, which traps air between layers forming a protective insulation. Wear a hat because much of your body’s heat can be lost through your head.

For more information, visit your physician or visit online at www.heart.org.

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