At what age should you stop?

January 3, 2022
At what age should you stop?


Shoveling snow isn’t for everyone. 

Thousands of people get injured and dozens die every year while taking care of the maligned winter chore. And for those of a certain age or health status, experts say it might be best to leave the shoveling for someone else.

As much as it can seem like a mundane outdoor job, shoveling snow has resulted in thousands of injuries and can even spur a fatal heart attack.

A peer-reviewed study published in 2010 estimated that nearly 200,000 people were treated in emergency rooms for snow-shoveling related incidents from 1990 to 2006, or an average of roughly 11,500 people per year.

Soft-tissue injuries accounted for more than half (54.7%) of the cases tracked in the study. Lower back injuries made up a little more than a third (34.3%) of the cases.

The activity can also be a trigger for heart attacks, experts say.

The 17-year study recorded 1,647 deaths, all of which were cardiac related.

So if you need to clear the driveway after a big snowfall, think carefully about who is grabbing the shovel this winter.

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How old is too old to be shoveling snow?

Older middle-aged adults should try to avoid shoveling snow, experts say.

Dr. Barry Franklin has conducted studies on the topic after he knew two people who died during or after snow removal. He cautions against anyone over 45 years old partaking in the winter chore due to the “perfect storm” of factors that seem to spark heart attacks.

Dr. Luke Laffin, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic, encourages people to start finding alternative ways to remove snow once they turn 55 years old. 

The precise age at which someone should hang up the shovel varies based on the health status and heart history of the individual, Franklin says, but he generally recommends older adults to find another way to clear the driveway.

“I think it’s really impossible to say a certain age. I see people every day, sometimes I see a guy who’s 70 who really looks and functions like he’s 40, and other people vice versa,” said Franklin, the director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Michigan.

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The recommendation comes down the high prevalence of heart issues for adults in their middle ages or older. Nearly half of American adults are affected by cardiovascular diseases, according to a 2019 American Heart Association report.

One factor in what makes the chore dangerous for at-risk groups is the weather. Cold temperatures can raise blood pressure and constrict coronary arteries, Franklin said.

Couple the cooler air with the intense exertion levels of shoveling – especially wet, heavy snow – and it can be a deadly combination for an age group that’s widely known to have issues with heart health.

“It’s like doing a stress test. I mean, it’s peak exercise,” Laffin told USA TODAY.

In fact, the chore can be as intensive as running. 

A 1995 peer-reviewed study co-authored by Franklin revealed that the two activities – shoveling snow and running on the treadmill – generated roughly the same heart rate in a group of young adult men, and snow shoveling actually spurred a higher systolic blood pressure. 

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For older middle-aged adults who don’t get a lot of exercise or generally stay inactive, Franklin and Laffin agree that it’s best to leave the intensive shoveling for someone else.

And regardless of age, those with at least one medical condition, like an existing case of cardiovascular disease, should try to find an alternative way to clear the driveway, Laffin said.

“Particularly people that have multiple medical conditions such as coronary artery disease or hypertension, or maybe they’re overweight or obese and don’t get a lot of physical activity — it’s not worth it to risk your heart,” he said.

Finding a younger neighbor or relative is an option, as is an electric snow blower, though even that can be a workout. 

“If you’re not in great shape, it’s not a bad idea to put that task on someone else,” Laffin said.

Follow Jay Cannon of USA TODAY on Twitter: @JayTCannon


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