Winter weather forces the heart to pump blood harder in order for the body to maintain warmth, and severe cold temperatures can cause the blood vessels to constrict. Our bodies automatically prioritize the vital organs when exposed to below-freezing temperatures, which is why your fingers and toes are the first extremities to turn pale and cold after too much time spent outside in frigid weather.
While maintaining cardiovascular health is important year-round, it is particularly vital to take a little extra care during the winter months to ensure your heart muscle stays happy (and warm).
It may seem like a no-brainer, but dressing warmly during the winter isn’t just for comfort reasons. Though many prefer the feel of cold weather, your heart muscle and cardiovascular system is not exactly a fan. In order to keep up with your body’s demand for warmth, especially around your brain, lungs, liver, and kidneys, your heart has to concentrate on pumping blood, a much taller order when the weather turns cold.
Give your heart a break from doing the heavy lifting by dressing in warm clothing, wearing a hat, gloves, and a scarf before you step outside, and if you travel by car, consider heating it up ahead of time. Layers work better than a large, thick coat on its own, as air between layers acts as a buffer or insulator of heat, further maintaining warmth.
Don’t Spend Too Much Time Shoveling Snow
Research has shown that too much physical exertion too quickly in the cold weather can lead to an increased risk of a heart attack. This is particularly true for those of us with a history of coronary artery disease, hypertension, or who are otherwise over the age of 55. Due to the way the cold weather constricts the blood vessels and spikes blood pressure on its own, combined with the short and intense burst of energy needed to lift snow and move it from one place to another — and quickly, as most of us who shovel do so in order to make it to work on time — our heart muscles are strained often beyond the point of tolerance.
So what can you do if you live in a cold climate and are already at an increased risk of a heart attack, or fall within a risk group?
- Hire someone to help you shovel snow, like a neighbor, or younger relative. You may be surprised to discover that there are plenty of teenagers and physically fit young people in your neighborhood who are ready and willing to make a few extra bucks shoveling your driveway.
- Know the signs of a heart attack before they occur. These include chest pressure or pain, soreness radiating through your arm, back, or jaw, and an increased, unexplained feeling of panic.
- Choose the right tools. If you absolutely need to remove the snow yourself, consider using a snow blower, or lifting smaller, more manageable piles with a small, lower capacity shovel.
- Take frequent breaks and work slowly. Though you may feel like you absolutely need to shovel all the snow as soon as possible before the sun sets or your commute becomes hellish, take your time. Make a plan to allow yourself more time to shovel with breaks at regular intervals.
- Dress appropriately. Wear warm layers, gloves, heavy socks, and a hat.
- Wash your hands and face. This can promote circulation and relieve some of the burden on your cardiovascular system.
Though those who do so are often the butt of jokes, there’s a good reason many over a certain age relocate to warmer climates: snow shoveling isn’t just physically treacherous, it can be deadly!
Several holidays fall within the winter months. Holidays are a natural time for overindulgence in sweets, alcohol, and physical activity, and thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many have felt even more vulnerable to excessive consumption of “comfort food.” Moreover, experts have reported a 54% increase in alcohol sales in the United States compared to the same time frame in 2019.
These behaviors may seem innocent, but overindulgence can lead to an increased risk of a heart attack or heart disease. Leading a heart-healthy lifestyle requires a healthy diet and limits on alcohol consumption.
Stay (Safely) Active
Though you need to take more care in the winter while exercising, you still need to maintain physical activity during the colder months. A sedentary lifestyle promotes stagnation and blood clots, both of which are precursors to heart attack and stroke. The key to keeping up with your exercise habits when the temperature drops is staying mindful of how how to do it safely:
- Warm up before you begin. This is an important step before any type of physical activity or exercise, but it’s doubly important if you intend to work outside.
- Take it slow. Your body doesn’t need to move quickly in order to exercise. Walking has many heart healthy benefits and doesn’t require an unsustainable level of physical exertion.
- Dress in layers. Once again, the benefits of staying warm in the winter cannot be understated, and layers will help you feel warm and less restricted in your movements.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated is just as important in the winter as the summer, and you may not notice the signs of dehydration as quickly in the cold.
Talk to Your Doctor
One of the best things you can do for your heart this winter is to follow up with your primary care physician, cardiologist, or other medical provider to assess your personal risk of heart issues. If you have previously suffered a heart attack, or have been diagnosed with any number of conditions that increase your risk of experiencing a heart attack, you need to take more caution than usual in the winter months.
Your doctor is the best resource you have to determine your risk, so consider scheduling an appointment with your Premier Medical Group provider to go over your unique considerations with regard to heart health, and make a plan to keep yourself safe not just in the winter months, but year-round.