Over this past weekend, during the height of the Blizzard of 2016 which covered a huge portion of the eastern United States, I sat between snow cleaning trips on my warm couch watching the local news and sadly knew what was coming. I knew that the news reports would start to trickle in with fatalities reported from the storm. What is amazing is that because our civil servants and first responders are SO amazing here in NYC, the fatalities are very rarely from what one might think of during such a storm; things like fires, people trapped in their cars, hypothermia, etc. A huge percentage of fatalities from snowstorms results from participation in the shovel wars. As a community, we fight those white devil flakes with all our might to make sure that our sidewalks, driveways and cars are clean.
What I didn’t expect to happen is that there would be two fatalities from shoveling that occurred in my own neighborhood, from YOUR own neighborhood here in Staten Island.
For perspective, in a study done a few years ago, there were close to 12,000 snow shoveling injuries and deaths in ONE YEAR in the United States.
The connection between snow shoveling and heart attacks is not an old wives tale, like going outside with wet hair leading to a cold. The science is well-documented, and the reasons behind the correlation go beyond the fact that shoveling snow is intense exercise—it’s a very specific kind of exercise.
The problem is that statistically, many seniors do suffer from either known or hidden heart disease of some sort. Add to this that snow shoveling is a unique form of exertion. It can be vigorous and challenging to the cardiovascular system in general, and the heart in particular. When combined with the inherent environmental conditions of winter, snow shoveling during or after a blizzard may be the “perfect storm” for a cardiac event.
So here is the science:
When you are shoveling snow, you are performing an action that is deceptively difficult on your heart. First and obviously, it is typically performed in cold weather. Cold air inhalation may cause a reflex constriction of blood vessels, including the coronary arteries. Cold air may also increase the blood’s propensity for clotting. If blood clots form and there is a tear in the inside of the artery, a blood clot could form a blockage.
The second issue is the nature of the exercise—and snow shoveling is unique. It is typically done without a warm up, and includes considerable arm work that increases blood pressure drastically. As blood pressure rises, so too does the work of the heart. Meanwhile, your leg muscles are typically performing isometric work (where you produce a lot of tension but your muscles don’t move your joint – like an even tie during an arm-wrestle). This type of muscle activity, especially in the upper body (as you tightly grip the shovel), raises blood pressure more than, say, walking or jogging.
Added to that a tendency for people to not exhale out after raising their arms (“the Valsalva maneuver”) and the fact that it is your chest, not your whole body, that requires a sudden burst of oxygen while shoveling, and it’s extremely dangerous for those with heart disease or other underlying conditions.
Weirdly enough, some doctors state that it doesn’t help that circadian rhythms make people more susceptible to heart attacks from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.—prime shoveling time.
So what to do?
I know that you are proud, and I know that there is a fine likelihood that you could go outside, shovel, and return back no worse for the wear with a hot cup of coffee calling your name. Even if you are a senior, you can still potentially handle the work.
Is it worth the risk though?
Depending on the area in which you live, there may be local residents who walk around and offer to shovel and clear your walkway, driveway and car. According to an article published on SILIVE.COM, current rates for this service by local neighbors ranges from $30-$200.00 depending on property size and the relative generosity of your neighbors.
You can also simply call ahead to any landscaping company, who you can either hire to do the job or at least get a qualified referral.
Lastly, if you do not have the financial means to pay someone to do the work, contact your local church or senior center. Many provide free services to local seniors or again will be able to refer you to an organization that can help.
If you MUST shovel, and please don’t, make sure to use every single precaution.
- Go SLOWLY
- Take breaks VERY OFTEN
- Don’t try to do the whole project at once. It’s perfectly fine to do some work, stop, go inside, and restart later.
- Don’t do it alone
This storm really hit us close to home. Please don’t be headstrong and foolish. It’s not worth it.