Snow shoveling is risky business


Last updated 1/16/2024 at 10:02am

Old man winter came late this year, but when he arrived he packed a wallop on Sisters Country. At Black Butte Ranch, there was two feet on the ground by noon on Friday. Throughout the weekend temperatures plummeted and the white stuff kept piling up.

For many, like skiers and snow boarders, the long wait for snow materialized and Ski Hoodoo opened last Wednesday to excited crowds. Although only two of four lifts operated as the job of grooming trails and readying all the mechanical apparatus took more effort with the rapid buildup of snow.

Mt. Bachelor, already open, also struggled to keep lifts running and trails open with five feet of snow falling in a 72 hour window. They closed Saturday for the first time in two decades due to extreme conditions.

As if on a universal cue, out came the snow shovels and snow blowers all over town and the hard work of clearing sidewalks — required by municipal code if you live within the city limits — and driveways began. And with it the universal and perennial warnings from health officials to think twice before attacking the snow.

Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire Chief Roger Johnson noted, “Safety groups recommend warming up prior to engaging in extensive snow shoveling. Warm up exercises such as stretching can prevent most injuries and emergency room visits. Other recommendations include wearing footwear with good traction and moving smaller amounts of snow at a time. Trying to lift too much, too fast can result in serious injuries.”

Barry Franklin, Ph.D., FAHA, is one of the leading experts on the science behind the cardiovascular risks of snow shoveling. He has authored a number of studies on the topic, estimating that hundreds of people die during or just after snow removal in the U.S. each year. Reporting for the American Heart Association, he said.

“Shoveling a little snow off your sidewalk may not seem like hard work. However, the strain of heavy snow shoveling may be as or even more demanding on the heart than taking a treadmill stress test, according to research we’ve conducted.

“For example, after only two minutes of snow shoveling, study participants’ heart rates exceeded 85 percent of maximal heart rate, which is a level more commonly expected during intense aerobic exercise testing. The impact is hardest on those people who are least fit.”

Franklin noted five key ways snow shoveling affects heart health:

• Snow shoveling involves mostly isometric or static exertion that involves the contraction of muscles without any movement in the surrounding joints.

• The act of shoveling snow is mostly arm work, which is more taxing and demanding on the heart than leg work.

• While straining to lift heavy loads, such as a shovelful of snow, you often unconsciously hold your breath, which causes big increases in heart rate and blood pressure.

• Since you are mostly standing still while shoveling, your legs are not moving much which results in pooling of blood in the lower extremities, so it is not getting back to the heart which needs the oxygenated blood.

• Breathing/exposure to cold air causes constriction of blood vessels throughout the body, disproportionately raising blood pressure and simultaneously constricting the coronary arteries (which are about the size of cooked spaghetti).

“The movements of snow shoveling are very taxing and demanding on your body and can cause significant increases in your heart rate and blood pressure,” Franklin said. “Combined with the fact that the exposure to cold air can constrict blood vessels throughout the body, you’re asking your heart to do a lot more work in conditions that are diminishing the heart’s ability to function at its best.”

Those who are over 40, especially men, or have risk factors such as diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure or who smoke or live a sedentary lifestyle should think twice before shoveling snow, experts warn. Adding: those with a history of cardiovascular problems, including chest pain, heart disease or previous heart attacks, or those who have had procedures such as an angioplasty or bypass surgery should not do it at all.

Snow shoveling can be risky and warrants common sense, particularly as temperatures plunge below zero as they did last Saturday.

“While cardiac emergencies can occur during snow removal activities, it is a pretty rare event statistically,” Chief Johnson noted. “Remember to take it slow and work within your physical capabilities. If you aren’t physically able to remove the snow, consider hiring a private contractor or asking neighbors or family for help.”


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