The past weekend saw record amounts of snowfall in some parts of the East Coast. The next few days call for possible records in parts of the Midwest.
A topic that comes up every now and again–and that I addressed in a blog two years ago–is how dangerous it might be to shovel snow from a health standpoint. We hear stories about people having heart attacks while shoveling, but what is the real story?
According the MetroHealth website (one of the hospital networks here in Cleveland): “Shoveling, even pushing a heavy snow blower, can cause sudden increase in blood pressure and heart rate, and the cold air can cause constriction of the blood vessel and decrease oxygen to the heart. All these work in concert to increase the work of the heart and trigger a potentially fatal heart attack.” What we have here is a kind of double-whammy. On the one hand, the physical exertion leads to elevated and respiratory rates, while on the other hand, the cold air may prevent the additional oxygen from reaching the heart where it is needed most.
For most folks in decent health, the risk still remains relatively low. In fact, according to an article from Harvard Medical School, only about 100 people die each year from shoveling snow. If, however, a person already has compromised heart or lung function or is elderly, there is definitely a risk factor here. See my last blog post on the likelihood of heart attacks from strenuos activity in general.
Each person knows their own body best. While there may be a low risk of a cardiac event, it is possible to develop issues with soreness of muscles or damage to tendons and ligaments as a result of shoveling. Perhaps most noteworthy is the danger of slipping on ice if such conditions exist. Younger adults may end up with only a bruise or a sprain, but older adults may have an increased risk of fractures, which can lead to further complications.
Weigh the pros and cons…and consider that paying the neighbor’s kid to shovel may not only help preserve your health, but also help a young entrepreneur on their way to self-sufficiency!
Some of you may recall Redd Foxx’s famous line from Sanford and Son (while feigning a heart attack): “It’s the big one, I’m coming to join you Elizabeth!” While this groundbreaking show was one of the funniest in television history, it did distort the reality about heart attacks (also known as miocardial infarctions). It is extremely rare that they are brought on in the way portrayed in the show.
There is still a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding about what causes a heart attack. It is caused by a blockage of blood flow to the heart; these blockages are caused by fat, cholesterol, and/or other substances that cause a build-up of plaque in arteries leading to the heart. Without blood, the tissue loses oxygen and can die. So it appears that there are other things at play aside from Sanford’s son, Lamont!
CNN Health recently featured a story that touches on another myth regarding heart attacks. Two television characters, Mr. Big from Sex and the City, and Mike “Wags” Wagner from Billions suffered heart attacks after using their Peloton bikes. These kinds of stories feed the misconception that exercising vigorously does not improve our health, but rather leads to our untimely demise. Dr. Andrew Freeman, of the American College of Cardiology notes that “…regular exercise is a wonderful way to stay healthy and well and reduce cardiovascular disease. In fact, I call exercise the ‘fountain of youth.'” This is certainly a very diffent characterization of the effects of physical activity. The fountain of youth is about as far away from untimely demise as one can imagine.
It is no secret to those who follow this blog that exercise–at any age–is beneficial. Do people have heart attacks at the gym or while running or bicycling? Yes, but at no greater rate than those who are engaged in other activities. A regular program of exercise is a great way to reduce risk of a cardiovascular event rather than cause it.
A few words of caution, however. Someone who is about to embark on a exercise program or a “fitness journey,” should consult with their primary care physician first to make sure that it is safe to do so. Certain exercises may be more advantageous/harmful than others given a person’s medical history. Another important point is that beginners should proverbially learn to crawl before walking…and certainly before running a marathon! It is vital to build up one’s strength and endurance in a responsible way; as always, a fitness professional can help with this.
Many people–especially older adults–have stayed away from exercise precisely because they fear the same fate as Mr. Big or Wags. Sadly, that fear may have prevented them from reaping the many health benefits of regular exercise. Chances are strongly in our favor that when we work out, it will not be the “big one” and we will not be coming to join Elizabeth any time soon. On the contrary, we might just encounter the fountain of youth!