December 23, 2008
Use caution when shoveling
Snow removal can create risk of heart attack for some people
Mark Yacavone has a system for shoveling his girlfriend’s driveway: divide it in half so he does not have to carry the snow far.
His method also calls for working slowly and steadily, stopping to rest, and not loading too much snow on the shovel.
The owner of Cortland Fitness Center, Yacavone knows he is in excellent shape for 54, but he is leery of snow shoveling’s physical risks.
Popular wisdom that shoveling snow can be good exercise is not quite true.
People tend to push themselves harder as they clear their driveway than they do in the weight room, if they are in shape at all. The heart takes considerable stress.
This is why people occasionally have heart attacks during or after snowstorms.
“It’s horrible exercise — well, maybe not horrible, it can be aerobic,” Yacavone said Monday. “But most people try to take too much snow (on the shovel). Everybody’s in a hurry. You need to slow down.”
As many as 1,200 people nationwide die due to coronary artery disease during or after a snowstorm, according to the American Heart Association.
“It is exercise, because you’re lifting weights, but that’s only if you’re in good shape and can handle it,” said Sammy Suriani, a physician’s assistant for Cortland Regional Medical Center’s cardiac care and rehabilitation unit. “You must understand your limitations.”
Pace yourself, medical experts say. Do not overload your shovel with heavy snow. Use your legs as much as your back and shoulders.
With two storms dumping more than 8 inches of snow since Friday in the region, health experts warn against removing snow too quickly from sidewalks and driveways.
“People tend to think of snow removal as just another household task, but it really involves a lot of bending and heavy lifting, particularly in wet snow,” said Dr. Robert Dunbar, a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
The risk is higher for anyone who does not exercise regularly.
“The weight of the snow puts tremendous stress on your heart,” Suriani said. “It’s actually one of the things we do here, when someone is rehabbing — we have them lift weights. Your heart rate goes up. When that happens, your heart needs more oxygen, like any big muscle. But if you have a heart condition and you’re not aware of it, there’s a risk.”
Shovelers are likely to strain themselves when snow is packed or wet, especially where driveway meets street and the snow is deeper and packed hard after being deposited by a municipal plow.
“You need to carve it into smaller chunks,” said Suriani. “If you use your legs, you use your hamstrings and quadricep muscles. It distributes the weight across big muscle groups, which is good.”
Suriani said younger people, even people in their 30s, can be at risk because their cardiovascular systems lack what is called collateral circulation.
“As you age, the arteries of the heart develop new tributaries (vessels), so if an area is not functioning, they make up for it and blood flow continues,” he said. “In a younger person, that has not happened yet. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, the first presentation of a heart problem is arrest (heart attack).”
Suriani said tightness in the chest or trouble breathing are warning signs.
The AHA cites one study of medical examiners’ records in three counties around Detroit. One heart attack related to shoveling occurred before a snowstorm, 22 during the storm, 13 during the weeks after it.
The AAOS, quoting the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, said more than 118,000 Americans were treated for injuries sustained while shoveling snow or using snowblowers.
The group said injuries from snowblowers tripled from 2006 to 2007, reaching 15,000. That included people who hurt their legs or backs as they maneuvered the machines, or who received cuts or amputations as they tried to remove snow clogging the machines’ blades.
Heart attacks and injuries also occur when people try to push cars loose from snow.
Dale Taylor was clearing the snow at 7:45 a.m. Monday in front of his business in downtown Cortland, Sarvay Shoes.
Using a large grain shovel with a short handle, he was tossing the snow into the bed of his pickup truck so he could take it to his home on Page Green Road in Virgil.
“Customer service starts at the curb,” he said. Asked if he thinks about the health risks of shoveling, at close to age 54, he said “never.”
“I’ve been shoveling since I was 7 or 8, and I like getting out in the fresh air,” Taylor said. “I’ve heard about the risks. Once I get to the point where I can’t shovel, maybe I’ll hire a young kid to do it.”
Yacavone said he learned his shoveling lesson at 14 or 15, while helping his father, Bunnie, and godfather, Carmen Ricottilli, dig a ditch.
“I was going to show those old guys how strong I was,” he said. “I was digging away and my godfather said in Italian, ‘Slow down so we can have you all day instead of for an hour.’ I did as he said. I shovel snow that way to this day.”
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