Waking up to a driveway full of snow is bad enough. Then you have to brace yourself for the next task: shoveling yourself out. But be careful. The intense exertion, combined with the freezing cold, can make your heart rate and blood pressure soar. That's why the American College of Emergency Physicians advises against shoveling snow if you have a history of heart attacks.
"If you're over 50 and haven't been exercising regularly, be extra wary," said Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser. "Silent coronary disease can become not-so-silent with all that extra effort." Moreover, the heavy lifting can cause pulled muscles and back injuries. Here's how to protect yourself.
Warm up. Cold muscles are tight and vulnerable to strains. Moreover, sudden exertion in cold air can cause a sharp rise in blood pressure or cause asthma attacks. To avoid these problems, start with 10 minutes of light exercise, such as marching in place, rolling your shoulders, swinging your arms, and flexing your knees, say guidelines from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Stay hydrated. You might feel less thirsty in cold weather, but it's still easy to become dehydrated, which can impair your body's ability to regulate heat. As a general rule, drink a glass of water before shoveling snow and more if you feel thirsty while shoveling.
Prepare wisely. Layers of clothing work best because you can put them on or take them off as needed to stay comfortable. Start with underwear and socks made of a synthetic fabric that wicks moisture away from the skin. Avoid cotton, which retains sweat and doesn't have insulating power. Wear the appropriate head coverings, as well as mittens or gloves and thick, warm socks. Wear shoes or boots with slip-resistant soles, and watch for icy patches.
Use the right shovel. Consumer Reports recommends using one with a D-shaped handle because it's much easier to control than other types, especially if the load is unbalanced. Be sure it fits your hand while you're wearing a glove. Shovel before the snow gets too deep and packed down, then shovel again later if necessary. Or clear off the top two inches, take a break, then tackle the next inch or two.
Hold the shovel close to your body. If possible, push the snow out of the way. If you must lift, don't bend at the waist; instead, squat with your legs apart, knees bent, and back straight. Scoop up small amounts of snow, using your legs to lift. Avoid tossing the snow; the twisting motion can hurt your back. Instead, carry shovelfuls to the snow pile.
Watch for warning signs. If you feel pressure or pain in your chest, or discomfort spreading to your shoulders, neck, jaw, arms, or back, call for an ambulance immediately, chew and swallow an aspirin, and lie down. You could be having a heart attack.
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