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Rigors of Shoveling Snow Can Be Perilous to Heart

D.J. Schloss, left, and Doug Metz clear snow from a roof on Abbey Lane in Alden, N.Y., Nov. 20, 2014.

At least two people have died as a result of shoveling snow amid the massive storm that has blanketed Buffalo, New York. It's an activity that causes nearly 100 fatal heart attacks across the nation each year.

Why? Barry Franklin, director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, said lifting and tossing heavy snow with a wide shovel can make the shoveler’s heart rate and blood pressure suddenly shoot up.

Cold temperatures can compound the risk for people with heart problems, constricting blood vessels and reducing blood flow to the heart.

Franklin, who has written several scholarly articles on why people die when shoveling snow, said that "in general, we find that people who experience cardiac arrest — sudden cardiac death during snow shoveling — are typically middle-aged or older. They are typically individuals who are generally inactive, almost invariably inactive, who once a year or once every 10 years go out and do vigorous physical exertion that is shoveling snow.

"And most have a history of either hypertension, cigarette smoking, high cholesterol, previous heart attacks — almost invariably, many are overweight or obese.”

Snow removal is a strenuous activity that works the arms, Franklin said, which takes more physical stamina than exertion involving the legs.

Also, he said, people tend to hold their breath when they shovel, which puts extra strain on the body.

In general, Franklin advises people who are 55 or older to resist the temptation to clear their sidewalks and driveways when it snows, even with a snowblower.

“People who are older or have coronary disease or even suspected heart disease simply should not remove snow," he said.

For those who feel they must remove snow and don't have a machine, Franklin said it’s better to push the snow out of the way with a shovel. He also recommends dressing warmly, taking frequent breaks indoors, and not eating or smoking before shoveling.

Franklin said he became interested in learning about the hazards of snow shoveling when two of his friends died clearing snow.