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To Shovel or Not to Shovel: When to Check with a Doctor Before a Strenuous Activity

Posted 1/16/2017 by UHBlog

Winter’s cold and snow present special challenges as you age. Talk to us about which winter tasks are still right for you.

To Shovel or Not to Shovel: When to Check with a Doctor Before a Strenuous Activity

Ice, snow and cold weather can result in health and safety issues the older you get. But successfully navigating winter is easy with a little extra care, says family medicine specialist Konstantinos Tourlas, MD.

“Given cold weather and the possibility of black ice, falls are the No. 1 risk in winter for those 65 years and older,” Dr. Tourlas says. “In addition, cold weather itself can trigger chest pains and breathing issues.”

To protect yourself in winter, Dr. Tourlas recommends taking safety precautions such as:

  • Wearing proper footwear with good grip and traction
  • Clearing and salting sidewalks and driveways to cut down on ice
  • Staying inside when the wind is blowing hard enough to make you unsteady
  • Keeping steps and other surfaces in good repair to lessen the chances you could trip over something hidden under the snow
  • Making sure that any rails or other protective devices are in good shape

“If you use a cane, walker or other assistive device, it’s very important that you continue to do so – even when drifts or other obstacles make it more difficult,” he says. “Not using these aids increases your chance for falls, even before you add in the risk from the environment. If conditions are such that you can’t use your assistive devices, you should consider staying indoors.”

Another concern is how your body reacts to cold. As you age, your shiver response often diminishes, which can lead to low core body temperature – or hypothermia. Shivering is both a warning that you’re getting cold and a way for your body to generate extra heat.

Besides hypothermia, cold temperatures can cause blood vessels to constrict and get smaller, causing your airways to spasm. If you have asthma, this may trigger an attack that requires the use of your rescue inhaler. Plus, narrower blood vessels mean your heart has to work harder to pump blood, which can result in chest pains.

“Those at higher risk would include those with lung diseases, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and those who smoke,” says Dr. Tourlas. “People don’t often realize that shoveling snow can be more strenuous than exercising on a treadmill. If you have known heart disease, prior history of heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or smoke, take precautions before you start winter activities.”

According to Dr. Tourlas, there are things you can do to help protect yourself, including:

  • Dress in multiple layers of clothing. Air trapped between the layers acts as additional insulation.
  • Keep head and neck covered using a cap and scarf. Almost 50 percent of your body heat escapes from this area and yes, losing one's hair increases heat loss.
  • Never eat a heavy meal before doing strenuous activities. Eating pulls blood to your gut to aid digestion, leaving less for your heart.
  • Drink plenty of fluids so you stay well hydrated. The lower humidity seen in winter may cause you to lose water quicker.
  • Stay away from caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea and/or sports drinks as these actually cause you to lose more fluid. Water or juices are usually the best.

“The amount of activity a person can safely do during the winter is very individualized,” Dr. Tourlas says. “It's a great idea for seniors to see their doctors and discuss their general health and what they can or cannot do during the winter. The most important thing is just understanding your limitations.”

Konstantinos Tourlas, MD is a family medicine specialist at University Hospitals Ashland Family Practice. You can request an appointment with Dr. Tourlas or any other health care provider online.

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