Snowstorms are blanketing the United States, prompting countless Americans to pick up snow shovels and clear walkways and driveways.

Shoveling snow is more than a chore, however — it can be a health hazard.

The exertion of shoveling snow increases a person’s risk of heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest, warns the American Heart Association.

Snow shoveling has a prominent place among physical activities that place extra stress on the heart, especially for folks who aren’t used to regular exercise, the AHA says.

“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,” said Barry Franklin, director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at Corewell Health East William Beaumont University Hospital, in Royal Oak, Mich.

Shoveling snow is mostly arm work, which is more taxing and demanding on the heart than leg work, Franklin explained.

In addition, people straining to lift a heavy shovelful of snow often unconsciously hold their breath, which causes a big increase in heart rate and blood pressure, he said.

Since people mostly stand still as they shovel, their legs don’t move much as they work. This results in blood pooling in their legs and feet, denying the heart part of its available supply of oxygenated blood.

And lastly, cold air causes constriction of blood vessels throughout the body, raising blood pressure and constricting arteries leading to the heart.

“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 in an AHA news release. “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.”

Snow removal is especially concerning for people who already have heart risks, such as couch potatoes, the obese, smokers, diabetics and survivors of previous heart attacks or strokes, Franklin said.

“People with these characteristics and those who have had bypass surgery or coronary angioplasty simply should not be shoveling snow in any conditions,” Franklin said.

“We often see events in people who are usually sedentary, they work at a computer all day or get little or no exercise,” he added. “Then once or twice a year they go out and try to shovel the driveway after a heavy snowfall and that unexpected exertion can unfortunately lead to tragedy.”

Franklin recommends that people with risk factors for heart disease get someone else to handle snow removal for them.

He adds that if you must shovel snow, you should:

  • Start gradually and pace yourself

  • Stay warm with layered clothing, a hat and gloves

  • Protect against breathing in cold air by covering your mouth and nose

  • Push or sweep snow rather than lifting and throwing it, as that involves less exertion

  • Use caution when the wind is blowing, as wind chill will increase the effects of cold on your body

Folks also might consider using an automated snow blower. Pushing a snow blower raises the heart rate to around 120, compared to around 170 while shoveling snow, Franklin said.

Pay close attention to your body while shoveling snow, and stop immediately if you experience chest pain or pressure, lightheadedness, heart palpitations or irregular heart rhythms. Call 911 if symptoms don’t subside.

More information

The Cleveland Clinic has more about the heart risks of snow shoveling.

SOURCE: American Heart Association, Jan. 11, 2024

What This Means for You:

People should avoid shoveling snow if they have heart health risk factors, or take steps to make the chore as easy as possible.