Mainers, health experts are worried shoveling will kill you

Gabor Degre | BDN

Gabor Degre | BDN

Every time a big snowstorm looms, the warnings pop up in my inbox:

“Heart Attack Season Survival Tips.” And we thought mud season was a bummer.
“Snow tips: Safe Shoveling.” Abstinence isn’t an option.
The Slippery Slope of Snow Shoveling.” See what they did there?
“Deaths from heart disease rise rapidly during winter.” The straightforward approach.

Granted, evidence shows that shoveling can trigger heart attacks. The combination of cold temperatures and physical exertion can stress the heart, especially in people with high blood pressure and other risk factors who rarely exercise.

So, put off your shoveling until it’s … warmer? All the well-intentioned warnings are of little help to someone who opens their door to this.


Some theorize that the spike in heart attacks after a blizzard could be attributed to the fact that sedentary people can’t avoid digging out after a storm, like they can skip other aerobic activity the rest of the year. Shoveling also makes for sudden and intense exercise. The cold weather forces us to expend energy just to stay warm, taxing the heart, and can make breathing difficult. Wrestling with the snowblower could potentially lead to the same troubles.

Besides heart attacks, injuries and other medical emergencies related to snow shoveling sent an average of 11,500 people a year to the hospital from 1990 to 2006, according to a study published in the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.

Maybe these two have the right idea.

January 27, 2015 — Andrew Knightlly (left) and his son Andrew , 13, shovel their driveway on Royal Rd in Bangor, each using a Snow Wolf. The wheeled shovel, or wovel, “doesn’t hurt your back,” Andrew explained “and it’s much faster”. Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

January 27, 2015 — Andrew Knightly (left) and his son Dwight, 13, shovel their driveway on Royal Road in Bangor, each using a Snow Wolf. The wheeled shovel, or wovel, “doesn’t hurt your back,” Andrew explained. Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

Most of us can’t avoid breaking out the shovel after a storm. But we can shovel smarter.

Here’s what the American Heart Association recommends:

  • Give yourself a break. Take frequent breaks and pay attention to how your body feels.
  • Don’t eat a big meal before or soon after shoveling. Eating a large meal can place 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. 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 your 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.

And a few more tips from the Snow & Ice Management Association (there’s a trade group for everything):


Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.