While physically demanding house chores are never the most exciting tasks on the to-do list, doing them can remind us that “we’ve still got it.” As we get older, many of us take pride in our ability to keep up with strenuous activities. When it comes to one common winter activity, however, it’s important to know when to take a step back. Research suggests that shoveling snow can trigger a heart attack in adults over 55 years old.
The connection might sound obvious at first. Any sort of physical activity raises your risk of a heart attack, right? But in fact, certain activities, such as running or swimming, aren’t as risky. That’s because you can gradually build up your endurance when you run or swim, going slowly at first and easing into the activity. But snow shoveling is a unique and taxing chore, and there’s no easy way to prepare your body for its demands.
Why You Should Stop Shoveling Snow at 55
So why is 55 the magic number? In a study published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, researchers sought to better understand the injuries that snow shoveling can cause. They collected data from National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, focusing on the years 1990 through 2006.
During that 17-year study period, 195,100 people received emergency department treatment for snow shovel-related incidents, and adults 55 years and older accounted for nearly 22 percent of all injuries. Not only were people that age more likely to end up in the ER than younger folks, they were also more likely to experience cardiac-related symptoms while shoveling. (In this context, the term “cardiac-related symptoms” refers to heart attacks, angina or severe chest pain, and sudden cardiac death.)
Among the group of older patients, men were over twice as likely as women to experience cardiac-related symptoms. What’s worse, all older patients were six times more likely than younger patients to be hospitalized.
“Snow shoveling can be a hazardous activity to some individuals because of the demands it places on the cardiovascular system,” the study authors wrote. “Chest pain, cardiac arrest, and other heart-related symptoms accounted for 6.4 percent of the [emergency department] visits studied. Cardiac-related cases were the most serious of those studied, accounting for more than half of the hospitalizations and 100 percent of the deaths.”
Why is shoveling snow so risky?
The research team notes that shoveling is a full-body exercise. “Snow shoveling requires the coordinated movement of the major muscle groups and requires a high level of simultaneous exertion from the legs, arms, and back,” the authors wrote. Indeed, a 1996 study from The American Journal of Cardiology shows that shoveling snow for just two minutes can cause a person’s heart rate to race well above the recommended limit for aerobic exercise.
What’s more, shoveling isn’t a year-round activity for most of us. It’s not easy to prepare for such a demanding chore, especially when we don’t know how much snow to expect each year. And freezing temperatures only exacerbate the problem. Cold weather causes blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart.
Other Injuries to Worry About
As noted by the researchers, cardiac problems weren’t the only risk. People who were 55 years of age and older were also more likely to slip, fall, and sustain an injury while shoveling. In addition, older adults were three times more likely than younger patients to suffer from fractures after using a snow shovel.
No matter how nimble and strong you may still feel, the risks of shoveling could be too great. It may be in your best interest to get some help shoveling this winter if you’re over 55. But if you don’t have a friend or family member to call for extra help, what should you do?
Start by researching volunteer programs in your area. Your town might have a volunteer shoveling program for senior citizens. In addition, local governments might offer subsidies to help you pay for snow removal services. For an immediate solution, consider investing in heated snow-melting mats (Buy from Heat Trak, $89.95).
It also helps to ask around. Get to know your neighbors! Find out if they know anyone who would be willing to help you. A little community love could go a long way during this snowy winter season.