Pros: It's free exercise. The Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health considers 15 minutes of shoveling snow to be as vigorous as swimming laps for 20 minutes or walking for 30—great for burning off all those holiday cookies.
Cons: Shoveling snow could spell disaster for people with risk factors for heart disease, thanks to the combo of hard work and hard weather. There aren't many hard statistics on the number of heart attacks caused by heavy snow shoveling, but anecdotal evidence has shown that emergency-room visits due to heart attacks spike in the 24 hours after a heavy snowstorm, says Roger Blumenthal, MD, professor of medicine and cardiology and director of the Ciccarone Preventive Cardiology Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "That's partly because when it's really cold, it's hard to judge how hard and how actively you're exercising, and how strenuously you're pushing yourself," he says. But it's also due to the fact that cold weather constricts your arteries, leading to a decrease in blood flow and an increase in blood pressure, he says. All of those factors are more likely to lead to a heart attack. Even seemingly healthy people can succumb to heart attacks after an intense bout of snow-shoveling, says Dr. Blumenthal, because we tend to overestimate how healthy our hearts are.
That: Snow Blowers
Pros: A handy piece of snow-removal equipment, snow blowers place no strain on your heart, and they can cut through as much as 21 inches of snow while barely boosting your heart rate.
Cons: Snow blowers are hard on the planet, particularly the gasoline-powered types that emit greenhouse gases along with carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides (all components of smog) as well as particulate matter. And studies have found that such airborne gunk can boost the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
This or That?
Go with…the option that matches your situation. The greenest and healthiest piece of snow-shoveling equipment could very well be the neighbor's kid. If you're worried about your ticker and the long-term future of the planet, pay someone who's young and healthy to shovel it for you, says Dr. Blumenthal. That alternative notwithstanding, make your decision based on your health. "A snow blower is better than trying to rely on shoveling yourself if you have several risk factors for heart disease or if you've had a bypass in the past," he says. You're at risk, he adds, if you have any one of the A-B-C-D-E-F's of heart disease: age older than 65; blood pressure higher than 140 over 90; cholesterol levels that are too high or a past history of cigarette smoking; diabetes; (lack of) exercise; or family history.
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If you fall into any one of those categories, a snow blower may be the preferable alternative, especially for clearing a large area. You can green it up by opting for an electric model, or by waiting to purchase one until 2011, when the Environmental Protection Agency will begin requiring manufacturers of small engines to outfit them with emissions-control units that will cut down on the aforementioned nasty pollutants.
For people who don't fall into a heart disease risk group, stick with the shovel. "It's a great form of exercise for younger people," Dr. Blumenthal notes.
If your heart's not at serious risk, shovel safely these tips:
• Avoid shoveling in the morning. Heart attacks are more likely to occur between the time you get up and when you eat breakfast, says Dr. Blumenthal. Your body gets an initial adrenaline rush, and strenuous exercise is more of a shock to your system, he says. That morning cup of coffee could raise your risk, too, as caffeine, like cold air, causes blood vessels to constrict and places an extra strain on your heart.
• Try to keep up with the snowfall. Don't wait for an entire storm system to dump all it's going to dump before you start shoveling. If it's feasible, shovel a few inches at a time so you're not stuck trying to clear 20 inches of snow all at once.
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• Warm up. Shoveling snow should be treated like any other exercise: March or jog in place for a few minutes and stretch your arms, legs, and back muscles before you get started.
• Listen to your body. "If you start to feel really winded and tired, it makes good sense to slow down and take a few breaths," says Dr. Blumenthal.
• Exercise during the winter. One reason shoveling snow triggers heart attacks is that it's often done by sedentary people who don't get much exercise. When snow or cold weather keeps you trapped indoors, use an exercise DVD or spend a half hour walking or running up your stairs.
• Buy a safer shovel. Invented by some ecominded snowbirds, the Snow Wolf is a shovel attached to a wheel that allows you some extra leverage to lift heavy snow without putting a lot of extra strain on your heart or back—and without polluting the atmosphere.