How Cold Weather Affects Your Heart (and What to Do About It) | The Survival DoctorPart 1 in a two-part series on snowy weather and your heart.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Every year people have heart attacks shoveling snow. Your heart attacking you is never good, but a slick road may make quick emergency transport harder than ever. And since the first few minutes can be crucial, that could make a difference in life or death.

Simple solution: Don’t shovel snow, correct? Well, maybe. Maybe not.

There are suggestions that it’s not only the exertion that puts you at risk. Just getting a bit too cold can also. And it doesn’t have to be freezing. There’s evidence that risk starts increasing when the weather is in the 50s Fahrenheit.

Cold Weather and Your Heart

There are two ways the cold affects you that experts think could increase your risk for a heart attack:

  1. It constricts your blood vessels, causing your blood pressure to rise a bit.
  2. It causes your blood to clot more easily. (By the way, strokes also increase in cold weather.)

So, dress warmly or stay inside. Problem solved?

Not so fast. As with a lot of medical risks and associations, it’s complicated: people living in warm climates have a higher risk of heart attacks in the winter also. Hmm.

To tell the truth, no one truly knows for sure all the reasons heart attacks are more common in the winter. So, as with a lot of medical things, we go with the information we have and hope it helps.

What to Do

How Cold Weather Affects Your Heart (and What to Do About It) | The Survival DoctorIf you’re at risk for a heart attack, here are some extra precautions to add to your normal heart healthy regimen that may help combat the cold-weather effects at least—snow or no snow:

  1. Layer. If you go out, dress to stay warm. During exertion, you may need to shed a layer to keep from sweating because moisture conducts heat away from your body much faster than just air. Then, when you rest, you may need to put the layer back on to keep from getting cold.
  2. Start slow with the exercise. Even if you’re in pretty decent shape, take it easy at first.
  3. Take breaks every 15 minutes or so when exercising and drink some water. Even just a bit of dehydration makes it harder for your body to stay warm, and it can also make your blood clot more easily independent of the cold.
  4. Eat a small snack before you start exercising and every couple of hours or so, or if you get hungry. Your body needs fuel to produce heat.

If you live in a snowy area and go on a hike, take into consideration that more effort will be needed to walk in the snow.

With the increased clotting, ask your doctor about taking an aspirin a day. This is just my own little suggestion. I have no studies to back it up, and remember, there are potential side effects.

In next week’s post I’ll go over more possible reasons for winter heart attacks—things other than snow shoveling and the cold—and what to do about them.

What about you? Have you had you ever thought about heart problems or strokes being related to the winter/? What do you do for exercise in cold weather?

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