Health Watch/Gladys Polzien, RN, MSN, CHPN

When snow slid off our metal garage roof the other day, I rushed outside to push the pile of snow off our driveway.

I thought to myself, “This will be easy – shouldn’t take me more than five minutes.” I was getting ready for the day and in a hurry to get to work. In my haste, I didn’t put on a hat or scarf. I threw on a lightweight jacket and grabbed my little plastic shovel to move the snow off the driveway. It didn’t take long to work up a sweat and feel sore muscles in my lower back. Snow shoveling provides the benefits of exercise and outdoor activity but it also can increase your health risks.

Snow shoveling is a type of moderate physical activity that can be an important part of your day – especially if you are trying to manage your weight this time of year. Physical activity is most helpful in the prevention of weight gain or regain. In addition, exercise has a benefit of reducing risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Physical activity can keep you feeling healthier by relieving stress, improving sleep, and by helping to prevent “cabin fever” during our long winter months.

The risk for a heart attack rises for people with heart conditions as the temperatures and snowflakes pile up during the winter months. When it’s cold outside, the body’s blood vessels will narrow to prevent heat loss. In a heart healthy person, this usually is not a concern, but in a person that has a heart condition, the combination of strenuous exercise that can raise blood pressure and narrowing blood vessels may dramatically increase the risk for a heart attack. Remember, it’s always best to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity. Trying too hard at first can lead to injuries. If you are older than 50, overweight or if you have had a heart attack, you should talk to your doctor before shoveling snow.

Dr. Holly Andersen, at the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center shared some tips in a medical center news release recently for heart health this winter:

Stretch and warm up your muscles with light activity before you shovel.

Stay warm. Dress in layers, wear a hat and appropriate outerwear.

Wear a face mask or scarf to help warm the air that you breathe.

Instead of lifting a shovel, push snow to remove.

Take your time, pace yourself and take breaks while you are shoveling snow- stop if you feel discomfort.

So the next time I venture out to do some snow shoveling, I’ll try to remember to use some of these basic safety tips. I hope you do too. Enjoy your winter safely.

SOURCE: New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University and Weill Cornell Medical Center, news release, Oct. 24, 2012

Editor’s note: Gladys Polzien, RN, MSN, CHPN, is director of operations with Aspirus Keweenaw Home Health and Hospice.