snow shovelingThe first major snowstorm of 2015 has hit the Northeast. As people dig out there and elsewhere this winter, the American Heart Association warns that some people may be at increased risk of a heart attack during snow shoveling.

The combination of colder temperatures and physical exertion increases the workload on the heart. That’s why people who are outdoors in cold weather should avoid sudden exertion, such as lifting a heavy shovel packed with snow. Even walking through heavy, wet snow or snow drifts can strain the heart.

“For people with existing heart conditions like heart failure, high blood pressure or cholesterol, the increased workload on the heart from activities such as shoveling of heavy snow, can put them at higher risk for heart attack,” said Patrick Thomas, M.D., an AHA fellow and president of the AHA’s Putnam County Region in New York.

“Before you do anything, check with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for your particular situation,” said Thomas, a cardiologist at NYU Langone at Hudson Valley Cardiology.

Here are tips for heart-safe snow shoveling:

  • Give yourself a break. Take frequent breaks to avoid overstressing your heart. Pay attention to how your body feels during those breaks.
  • Don’t eat a big meal before or soon after shoveling. Eating a large meal can put an extra load on your heart.
  • Use a small shovel or a snow thrower. The act of lifting heavy snow can raise blood pressure during the lift. It is safer to lift smaller amounts. When possible, simply push the snow.
  • Learn the heart attack warning signs and listen to your body. Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out. Carry your cell phone in your pocket and call 911 immediately if you experience any signs of a heart attack.
  • Do not drink alcohol before or immediately after shoveling. Alcohol can increase a person’s sensation of warmth and may cause you to underestimate the extra strain your body is under in the cold.
  • Consult a doctor ahead of time. Before you start shoveling, talk with your doctor if you have a medical condition, do not exercise on a regular basis or are middle-aged or older.