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Keep your health in mind as you plow through snow

Up to nearly 7 feet of snow. Thirteen deaths. And it isn’t even Dec. 1.

Those are just the start of the numbers that help tell the story of last week’s paralyzing storm in the Southtowns.

As we move forward into whatever comes our way the rest of this snow season, here are a few other numbers to bear in mind:

• Five of the 13 people who died in the recent storm succumbed to heart attacks. They ranged in age from 56 to 82. Two were shoveling snow and three were using snowblowers, Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said.

• An average of three to five people a day come into Buffalo General Medical Center after suffering non-fatal heart attacks during early season and holiday snow storms.

• Roughly 16,500 Americans are treated annually in hospital emergency rooms for injuries that happened while shoveling or removing ice and snow at their properties, including more than 6,000 who are injured while using snowblowers, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Lower back pain is the most common condition.

“The ounce of prevention is always worth the pound of cure,” said Philip L. Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo.

The risk of injury from falls and overexertion can rise as winter unfolds, according to Haberstro and three other regional wellness experts, but it doesn’t have to stop us in our tracks if we thoughtfully prepare for the storms yet to come, use patience once they arrive and take several precautions while outdoors.


Before you head out to clear that driveway during the next burst of snow, Dr. Vijay Iyer wants you to know a few things:

• A person needs seven times the amount of oxygen to shovel, or push a snowblower, than sit on the couch.

• Cold weather can quickly bring out the worst in heart disease – both known and unknown – putting those over 50 particularly at risk. “In the cold weather, the same symptoms of a heart attack may occur in a lower level of activity. That has to do with the way the blood vessels constrict in the cold,” said Iyer, a cardiologist at Buffalo General Medical Center and clinical associate professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo.

• Eating a heavy meal or drinking alcohol immediately before or after a strenuous bout of snow clearing increases the risk of a heart-related incident.

“People underestimate how big an activity snow shoveling is,” Iyer said.

Here are several tips he and others suggest when it came to clearing snow safely:

1. Warm up:The body makes a kinetic change from the ground up when we’re shoveling, so we have to get the body moving like that when we warm up,” said Josette Fisher, a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning coach and director of physical rehabilitation and sports medicine at Excelsior Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in Amherst. The warm-up should last at least five to 10 minutes before setting foot outdoors. Exercise should focus on all planes of motion with the goal of getting the blood pumping, and might include walking, running or marching in place, walking up and down stairs, and using a broomstick or pole to stretch the arms.

2. Know yourself: Those with partial artery blockage and other heart conditions are particularly vulnerable to more trouble should they try to tackle a driveway deep in snow. So, too, are those who lead sedentary lives and do little exercise. “Shoveling is the equivalent of playing singles tennis or walking on a treadmill at about 5 miles an hour,” Iyer said, so if you can’t do those things, you shouldn’t look to clear your driveway.

3. Dress right: Dress in layers, and wear a hat, gloves and boots with a good grip. If you get too cold or too hot, stop for a few minutes.

4. Bend, and break: “Lifting is harder, heavier, than just pushing the snow out of the way,” Iyer said. “You want to make sure that you’re minimizing the effort.” When the snow is too high to push, Fisher said that shoveling then involves “scooping and rotating, and requires not only your arms, but your legs and your hip mobility.” It’s important to train your body to rotate through the hip using your knees, and not at the back.

Iyer said it’s very important to take breaks from shoveling every 20 minutes or so, especially when snow piles up in feet instead of inches. “Even with moderate amounts of snow,” he said, “you want to pace yourself.”


There’s a lot you can do to prevent a fall, which can be particularly damaging in snow and ice:

1. Fitness counts: No matter your age, exercises that strengthen the core, overall balance and cardiovascular system are vital. Lower leg exercises on different surfaces also are important, Fisher said. “For fall risk management, tai chi is a very big thing for the elderly population,” she said. “It’s slow, controlled and works on a lot of static, dynamic movements through breathing and body posture. Fitness centers also offer a variety of classes to improve strength and balance. All of this can be very important when exerting yourself outdoors. “When fatigue sets in after 15 or 20 minutes,” Fisher said, “then the muscles don’t have the strength and they lose the endurance. That’s when bad postural things happen and the risk of falls increases.”

2. Add salt: Particularly to stairs, sloped surfaces and any spots that tend to get slippery in icy conditions. And store it inside, so you can toss it on potentially slick surfaces before you walk on them.

3. It can wait: “I can appreciate people can feel very anxious about being trapped, but on the days when the latest storm was most severe in the affected areas, there was really no place to go,” said health commissioner Burstein, “and if there was an urgent, critical medical condition that needed to be addressed, we were able to deploy snowmobiles and other vehicles.”

4. Speak up: “Sometimes older adults feel uncomfortable asking people for help, but I think most people have a willingness to help with a heavier load or other things that can help show that we are the City of Good Neighbors,” Haberstro said. “Don’t be shy.”

5. Think indoors, too: The start of winter and the holidays, when people are plugging in more gadgets and melting water tends to pool near doorways, is a good time to take stock of the dangers inside a house as well. You can order a fall prevention checklist from the Wellness Institute by calling 851-4052 or emailing “This doesn’t necessarily fall on the older person,” Haberstro said. “It’s a great way for people to get involved with keeping grandma and grandpa safe.”