The East Coast is getting hammered with a winter storm, resulting in 30 to 40 inches of snow in some areas. It takes only six inches for unplowed roads to become impassable. Men are donning their parkas and heading out with snow shovels and heroic intentions.
Snow shoveling is good aerobic exercise, burning about 600 calories per hour. That is in the same range as an aerobics class or going for a nice hour-long run. But, many middle-aged people who would never dream of attempting an hour-long run have suddenly rediscovered the joys of strenuous physical activity on a snow day.
You can almost hear the determination in their voices as they use words like “bracing,” or say, “Remember, exercise is good for you.” Hard to argue those points as they head out the door, shovel in hand.
There are more than 100 deaths per year in the U.S. caused by snow-shoveling. Most experts believe we under-count these by half or more, meaning that the real number might be two or three times higher. This number is much higher than lightning-caused or shark-related deaths.
The setting is the middle of winter, and for several reasons this is not the ideal time to start an exercise program. Most of us put on some weight in the winter. Activity decreases, as it often seems simply too cold to go outside. People also get the winter blues, and resort to comfort food. This makes it a long journey to aerobic capacity to safely do an hour of heavy exercise.
The very nature of snow-shoveling is a set-up for disaster.
Snowstorms are episodic. While we know the average yearly snowfall, we don’t know how it will arrive – several big dumps, or frequent, smaller storms. That means our candidate snow-shoveler has not done this activity regularly, or even recently. Snowstorms and snow shoveling obviously occur outside in the cold. What many people don’t know is that cold means vasoconstriction, or narrowing of the arteries. Less blood goes round and round. That is never good.
Our middle-aged, deconditioned and intrepid snow-shoveler is willing to take this risk because of a false sense of urgency. “We have to dig out the car or we’re trapped. No grocery shopping, work or school.” This may be true, but it is not really an emergency. There is probably a teenager close by that would enjoy some extra money by doing some shoveling. Or a commercial service (Plows-R-Us) that will plow your driveway for a modest price. Rarely is there a home in snow country without enough provisions for a few days. Clearing your driveway is not very important until the road is plowed.
Sometimes the medical profession pushes the message that “exercise is good,” and doesn’t give much time to the footnote: Exercise can trigger some really bad stuff if you are not properly prepared. Being properly prepared simply means checking with a doctor and making sure it is safe to stress the heart. An EKG might be in order.
So this storm, limit you’re shoveling to 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Get a few things checked when you dig out. Next storm, you will be ready.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.