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Dissertation: Beware the dangers of shoveling snow

Snow should be shoveled at a leisurely pace to avoid stress and increased adrenaline in the bloodstream in order to minimize risks of cardiac arrest.

Mies lumitöissä.
Image: Yle
Lydia Taylerson

The effects of snow shoveling have begun to raise alarms in Finland following research that directly links this common outdoor activity to cardiac fatalities.

A doctoral dissertation by medical licentiate Niilo Ryti of the University of Oulu argues that the combination of cold weather and physical strain, such as that from snow shoveling, can lead to a slippery slope of serious cardiac symptoms ranging from increased blood pressure to disturbances in the blood clotting system and oxygen deprivation, all the way to serious cases of cardiac arrest.

The type of snow shovels used in Finland have also been considered too large for their purpose as they require more exertion than is necessary. The same outcome could be achieved by pushing the snow, so to speak. Manufacturers have attempted to nudge customers towards the direction of smaller shovels that produce the same results but with less effort.

Professor Mika Scheinin of the Turku University biomedicine department warns that an added danger to those suffering from a heart disease is adrenaline. Excessive amounts in the bloodstream may accelerate cardiac functions and lead to arrhythmia or heart failure.

”If there is an existing coronary artery disease and risk of poor oxygen supply, any extra stimulation may be dangerous.”

Story continues after photograph

Lumikola ja kolaamaton tie.
Image: Kalevi Rytkölä / Yle

Scheinin points out that research has proven that many sudden deaths occur in the winter and especially in the mornings during snow shoveling. One factor in these deaths is the rise in adrenaline.

”It is upsetting if it has snowed a lot overnight, and you are in a rush to get to work, and it’s cold, and then you have to furiously shovel away the snow blocking in the car. This is not a great combination if you have a dormant heart condition” says Scheinin.

You cannot do anything about the weather, but you can ease up on the physical exertion by not letting the snow work get you riled up.

Cardiac arrests happen when mental stress, physical exertion and cold weather are combined.

That is a dangerous trinity, says Scheinin.

”You have to react to the snow in a calm manner, and approach the snow work as a useful exercise rather than rush your way through it,” advises Scheinin.

According to the Finnish Heart Foundation snow shoveling in cold weather can measure up to a six on the Metabolic Equivalent of Task, MET, index. MET is a unit used to measure the energy cost of physical activities in work and exercise related research.

A one on the MET scale measures the oxygen consumption equivalence of sitting calmly in a chair. A six on the MET scale is the equivalent of fast walking, skiing, or heavy gardening.

The Finnish Heart Foundation also advises snow shoveling to be done at a leisurely pace to avoid exertion and to take plenty of breaks.

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