the view

Snow shoveling could be more strenuous than exercising on a treadmill, UB cardiologist says

Closeup of man shoveling snow from driveway.

UB cardiologist John Canty says shoveling snow is particularly straining on the heart because it's usually a sudden stress, it's done in the cold and it primarily consists of lifting a heavy weight.

By ELLEN GOLDBAUM

Published March 8, 2018

headshot of John Canty
“Snow shoveling is heavy exercise that, for some people, can be more strenuous than exercising on a treadmill.”
John M. Canty Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor and chief of cardiovascular medicine
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Before you head out to the driveway or sidewalk to tackle the heavy, wet snow that routinely falls this time of year, it is prudent to consider your health first.

That’s the recommendation of cardiologist John M. Canty Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor and chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine in the Department of Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. He is also a physician with UBMD Internal Medicine, a member of UBMD Physicians’ Group.

“Snow shoveling is heavy exercise that, for some people, can be more strenuous than exercising on a treadmill,” Canty says. “It’s particularly straining on the heart because it is usually a sudden stress, is performed in the cold and primarily consists of lifting a heavy weight. As a result, blood pressure and heart rate can increase more than other forms of physical activity.”

Canty adds that heavy, wet snow — which routinely falls in late winter and early spring instead of the light, fluffy, lake effect variety from earlier in the season — probably increases the stress and risk.

While the risk for any individual suffering a cardiac event is generally low, he says it’s naturally higher in people with prior established cardiac disease, as well as those with such risk factors as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. And the older we get, these risk factors become even more important.

“All of these risk factors increase with age, as does the potential for musculoskeletal and back injuries from lifting,” Canty adds. “It’s therefore important for everyone — whether or not you have heart disease — to be prudent and, in particular, to pay attention to any new or unusual symptoms that develop while shoveling, such as chest pain or severe shortness of breath. If these symptoms develop, go inside and call 911, as they may indicate the onset of a heart attack.”

For patients with established heart disease, including those with prior stents or bypass surgery, Canty has words of caution. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer as to whether or not you can safely shovel snow. Many asymptomatic patients who are otherwise physically active can shovel snow. Others should not. It’s best to discuss this with your doctor beforehand.”

While a snow blower helps and is generally better than shoveling, Canty says, it doesn’t entirely eliminate the stresses of snow removal.

The best way to stay safe while shoveling? Canty says people should dress warmly, keep hydrated and avoid eating meals before going out.  

“Lifting less than the shovel holds to keep the weight down, particularly with wet snow, and tackling the job in small bites is good, general advice for everyone, regardless of their health history,” he says.