Shoveling snow isn’t your average everyday chore. It’s a strenuous task, and can burn 400 to 600 calories an hour. While it’s a great workout, it can be dangerous: about 100 people die annually while shoveling snow, and thousands are injured each year, according to the National Safety Council. Many of those injuries or deaths are heart-related. But what makes it so dangerous?
“Many people who shovel snow rarely exercise,” says former Harvard Heath Executive Editor Patrick J. Skerrett. This may be particularly true in the winter months, when many of us are cooped up indoors.
People who don’t exercise regularly might not be in the right condition to be making their hearts work as hard as this cardio-intensive task requires, which could lead to strain on the heart.
The cold weather puts even more strain on the heart. The cold can cause your arteries to constrict. This raises blood pressure and pulse – making your heart work even harder.
However, even those who are healthy still shouldn’t over-exert themselves, because many factors can make snow shoveling a uniquely dangerous task.
“The colder air can make it more difficult to breathe, because it can constrict your airways,” according to The Health Plan’s Dr. Robert Cross. “Also people are typically bundled up in plenty of layers, but that could lead to them getting overheated.”
Instead, it’s better to wear loose layers of clothing, so layers can be taken off as needed, according to the Snow & Ice Management Association.
The NSC recommends that snow shovelers take regular breaks when clearing snow, and don’t work to the point of exhaustion. Other tips include:
- Try to stay on top of the storm by shoveling after every few inches of snow
- Do not shovel after eating or while smoking
- Push the snow rather than lifting it. If you do have to lift it, only fill the shovel part way
- Lift with your legs, not your back
- Have a phone handy in case you find yourself in an emergency situation
If you have a history of heart problems, it’s best not to shovel snow at all unless approved by your doctor. However, if you’re relatively healthy, following these tips should lead you to a great workout – and clear sidewalks.