Shovelling snow can be good exercise, but Jeff Leiper knows all about the dangers it can pose.

Leiper, an Ottawa city councillor, had a heart attack in February 2019 while shovelling snow.

With many parts of Canada experiencing their first significant snowfall of this season this week, Leiper is among the voices warning about the dangers of shovelling snow.

“From the time I started until the time when I figured I had to stop, I’d been out for probably a couple of hours,” Leiper told Global News.

“It was a pretty strenuous day of shovelling, but I was surprised that I had taken a heart attack.”

Snow shovelling linked with heart attacks

A 2017 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that heavy snowfall and shovelling after a snowstorm increases the risk of going to the hospital for a heart attack, especially for men.

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Shovelling snow is a demanding workout, taking up more than 75 per cent of the maximum heart rate, especially if you’re working with heavy tools, the study suggested.

In January 2022, emergency rooms in Hamilton, Ont., saw a significant increase in the number of heart attack patients, likely due to people clearing the heavy snow.

Click to play video: 'Snow-ready fitness tips for injury-free shovelling'

Snow-ready fitness tips for injury-free shovelling

Winter brings its own opportunities for being active, but the cold weather can actually make it more difficult to exercise, said Kaitlyn Archibald, specialist of health policy and engagement at Heart and Stroke Foundation.

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“When we’re thinking about lack of sunlight, too, that can affect our motivation. That’s one reason people are more likely to develop issues with cholesterol, blood pressure and body weight during the winter, which are all risk factors for heart disease and stroke,” she told Global News.

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“It’s really important to know your risk factors.”

Click to play video: 'Squat, don’t bend: snow shovelling 101'

Squat, don’t bend: snow shovelling 101

Leiper said he wasn’t aware of his risk that day.

“I was surprised, and as I learned more about the contributing factors towards a heart attack, really learning a lot about how cholesterol and plaque play a role in that, and doing what I can to help spread the word about safer shovelling, is very important,” he said.

Both Leiper and Archibald shared tips on how to minimize the risk of heart attack or stroke when attempting to shovel snow.

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Before he goes out to clear the snow now, Leiper said he warms up. He also invested in an electric snowblower but when he does use a manual shovel, he pushes the snow rather than lift it.

“Take breaks and be aware of how you’re feeling while shovelling,” he said.

“It’s really important while you’re shovelling, no matter what you think your risk factors might be, to monitor yourself while you’re shovelling, and if you feel unwell, to stop.”

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Snow shoveling and heart attacks'

Health Matters: Snow shoveling and heart attacks

Archibald suggested shovelling snow soon after it falls, if possible, as well as using a shovel with a smaller blade to reduce chances of muscle injury.

“Make sure you’re not taking on more than you can handle, and also choosing a shovel that’s the right height for you to reduce the strain on your back can be helpful,” she said.

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“But in the same breath, we want to make sure that if you need to, break it up throughout the day or again, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

What to do in an emergency

Archibald said common symptoms of heart attack include chest discomfort, pressure fullness in your abdomen or chest, sweating, upper discomfort in your neck or jaw and shortness or breath.

Those symptoms can appear differently in women, she added.

“For women it might be pressure in your lower chest or your upper abdomen. It could also be dizziness or light-headedness or even fainting, and also upper back pressure or extreme fatigue,” she said.

Archibald added symptoms of stroke include drooping face or arms and slurred or jumbled speech.

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911.

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“Time is important, so don’t hesitate to call 911 if you or somebody you see is in distress as a result of shovelling,” Leiper said.

“Heart attacks while shovelling snow are not rare. It’s, unfortunately, a relatively common experience.”

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