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Michigan Blues: Take Care When Shoveling Snow

Keep heart health in mind and go slow as you remove snow from sidewalks and driveways.

With the first significant snowfall in metro Detroit making its appearance later in the season than usual, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) and Blue Care Network (BCN) recommend residents keep heart health in mind and go slow when clearing snow from driveways and sidewalks throughout the winter.

Shoveling snow can be hard work. Clearing snow for 15 minutes qualifies as a moderate physical daily activity recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General. However, for many sedentary, out-of-shape Americans, shoveling heavy, wet snow for 10 minutes is equivalent to running on a treadmill to exhaustion.

Studies show major snow storms are often associated with increased emergency room visits for everything from muscle aches to heart attacks, and the common denominator is snow shoveling.

The cold temperatures don’t help. Cold air raises blood pressure in people who don’t normally have a blood pressure problem and poses an even greater risk to people with high blood pressure, according to University of Florida researchers. 

Heeding several tips offered by the Michigan Blues can keep shoveling show from being a pain in the neck, or worse, this winter. First, if you have any of the following conditions, talk to your physician before shoveling snow:

  • A personal or family history of heart disease or asthma
  • Already sustained a heart attack
  • A history of back problems
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol level
  • A history of smoking
  • A history of inactivity 

For healthy, active individuals, the Michigan Blues suggest the following guidelines:

  • Use the right shovel. Shovels with S-shaped handles and non-stick blade surfaces usually require less effort and minimize chances of back pain that could result from improperly bending or twisting. Pushing or pulling snow out of the way requires less exertion.
  • Avoid stimulants (for example, caffeine and nicotine) that can raise your heart rate and restrict blood vessels. Avoid shoveling immediately after eating a large meal.
  • Before shoveling, warm up by stretching muscles, especially in the morning. Muscles are less susceptible to injury during physical activity after a warm-up.
  • Avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids before and during shoveling, but not coffee (see above). Breathing cold air dehydrates the body.
  • Dress in layers so you can remove or add outerwear as needed. Wear a scarf or mask and/or goggles, especially in windy or blizzard conditions. Inhaling cold air may constrict arteries, decreasing your heart’s oxygen supply.
  • Ease into the work to avoid a sudden load on your heart. An average snow shovelful of heavy, wet snow weighs 16 to 20 pounds. That means for every 10 minutes of typical shoveling, you’ll be clearing more than 2,000 pounds of white stuff. To remove snow, bend from the knees, keep your back straight, lift with your legs and carry — don’t throw — it to the side. Newly fallen snow is usually lighter, so don’t wait to remove it. Remove heavy snow in two stages. First, skim off the top layer, and then remove the bottom. If snow is too heavy to lift, push or pull it out of the way. Take frequent breaks.
  • Immediately stop if you feel pain or discomfort. No one knows your body as well as you.
  • If you have a lot to clear, consider hiring a removal service.  

Using a snow blower has its own set of rules. First, follow manufacturer safety precautions completely. Never attempt to clear a clogged or stuck blade or auger unless power is shut off. Avoid wearing anything that easily can get caught in the impeller, such as a long scarf or dangling laces.

Before starting, be sure children and others stand clear to avoid being injured by hidden objects thrown into the air. Even using a snow blower will elevate heart rates, so talk to your doctor if you have a history of heart problems.

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