Cold weather and healthy hearts

January 31, 2022

Heart health is a year-round job and getting enough sleep, exercising, eating right, managing stress and keeping up with screenings and annual checkups are always important. What many may not consider however, is how the winter months factor into heart health—especially in states with severe cold and snow.

Colder temperatures can cause blood vessels to constrict, which raises blood pressure and puts added stress on the heart. When you combine this with strenuous winter activities, the result is an increased risk of a heart attack. Before you head out this winter, remember a few things to help keep your heart healthier:

Dress for the part.
There are no style points when it comes to keeping your heart healthy. Dress for the weather—warmly, and in layers.  

Come in from the cold.
If you’re outside in extreme temperatures for a long time, take breaks from the cold as often as you can. Warming up indoors helps reduce the constriction of blood vessels and avoid overexertion of the heart.

Keep it clean.
Wash. Your. Hands. As we know, winter is when many people get sick. Colds and flu are everywhere, and COVID-19 adds to the mix of viral infections that can be transmitted by touching shared surfaces and then touching your face. Respiratory infections can increase the risk of heart attack. Wash your hands often.

Shovel with care—use caution to remove snow and protect your heart
Shoveling is probably the biggest winter risk to your heart. A recent study found that after only two minutes of shoveling, a person’s heart rate is above the ‘peak exercise’ rate recommended during a cardiovascular stress test. In other words, shoveling can put a lot of stress on your heart. And for those who are predisposed to heart disease or not accustomed to regular exercise, this could mean serious problems. Of course, the snow isn’t going to shovel itself—so take these tips to heart to make the snow removal process safer: 

Warm up before heading out.
Shoveling is a workout—treat it as you would any other exercise. Take time to stretch and move around to get your muscles warmed up—and your blood flowing—before starting.

Shovel in shifts.
You don’t need to tackle the entire driveway at once. Taking breaks can help reduce strain on your heart. If you need a rest, let yourself take a 15-minute break and take as many breaks as you need.

Use a smaller shovel.
The smaller your shovel, the less likely you are to overstrain—especially when removing wet, heavy snow. Use a smaller shovel so you’re not lifting so much.

Shovel in the afternoon.
If possible, shovel later in the day. Your blood is more likely to clot first thing in the morning—which is when most heart attacks occur. Plus, having a reason to procrastinate—for the health of your heart—may help make snow days a bit more fun again.

Ask for help.
If you are getting older or your health isn’t what it could be, please ask for help. Maybe there’s a neighborhood kid who needs service hours. Or call a family member or friend who would much rather have you healthy and safe inside—and ready to catch up over a hot cup of coffee after they’ve come in from the cold.

Listen to your heart—take the effects of winter on your health seriously.
As always, pay close attention to your body’s warning signs. Tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, pain that radiates down the arm, dizziness and lightheadedness are signs of a heart attack and need to be taken seriously. If you have these symptoms or think you’re having a heart attack, seek medical attention or call 911 immediately.

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