Researchers in Canada analyzed heart attack data from November to April of each year between 1981 and 2014 and found that 60% of deaths from heart attack during this time occurred in men. Further, the risk of dying increased as the amount of snow and number of hours it snowed increased.  Shoveling after a heavy snow fall (at least 8 inches) that lasted more than 24 hours increased the likelihood of having a fatal heart attack by 34 percent.  The results of the study were published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.


Journal article abstract:

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Shoveling snow is an extreme cardiac workout and, according to the researchers, raises the heart rate to more than 75% of its maximum rate.  Keep in mind that a target heart rate for cardiovascular exercise is between 50 – 85% of maximum. To put this in perspective, the average maximum heart rate for a 50 year old male is 175 beats per minute. Seventy-five percent of that is 130. Shoveling snow raises the heart rate higher than this. For a 60 year old, maximum heart rate is 160 beats per minute with 75% of that at 120. Shoveling can be as strenuous on your heart as a stress test.

So, if you must shovel, do it wisely and follow these tips from the National Safety Council, the American Heart Association and Harvard Health:

  • Stretch or warm up before you begin.
  • Dress in layers. Layers of clothing allows air to be trapped between the layers and form a protective insulation. Wear a hat because much of your body’s heat can be lost through your head. 
  • Don’t shovel after eating a heavy meal. This is the same ‘rule’ as not swimming after eating.
  • Don’t shovel while smoking. The carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke decreases the amount of oxygen in your blood and the nicotine increases your heart rate and blood pressure, all putting additional strain on your heart.
  • Don’t drink alcohol before shoveling. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels in your skin altering the perception of warmth which may cause you to underestimate how cold your body really is.
  • Avoid shoveling wet, packed snow. It’s heavy, requires more effort to move which puts more of a demand on your heart. Fresh powdery snow is lighter.
    • For heavy snow, use a smaller shovel and take smaller loads.
  • Push the snow rather than lifting it. If you have to lift it, use a small shovel partially filled and lift with your legs, not your back
  • Take frequent breaks.  Stop every 15 minutes to rest and assess how you feel.

Know the warning signs of a heart attack:

  • Chest pressure or pain
  • Pain or an ache down either arm,  across your upper back, or in your jaw
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
    • Nausea or vomiting
      Or if you just don’t ‘feel right’ -
      Call 911!

For more information:

National Safety Council
Why do people die shoveling snow?

American Heart Association
Cold weather and cardiovascular disease.

Harvard Health
Avoiding winter heart attacks.