Rebecca Boire-West

Well and Good

February — the month of love, roses, valentines, chocolate and increased incidences of heart attacks.

Yes, you read that right; February is correlated with increased numbers of heart attacks. It’s not because our hearts are bursting with love as many of you may think, but rather it’s due to the impact of cold temperatures on our heart.

In fact, research shows that the overall incidences of heart attacks increase by as much as 50 percent in winter months when compared to spring, summer and fall. 

Exposure to cold temperatures causes our blood vessels to constrict, which can lead to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Combine that with an outdoor activity such as shoveling snow or carrying in firewood and you might be making a reservation with the ER instead of your favorite restaurant. Of course, the risk of a heart attack is much higher if you are not very active, have a pre-existing heart condition or have risk factors for heart disease.

I know, some of you may be thinking “all the more reason to move South for the winter,” however this article could easily be written about the impact of hot temperatures on our hearts.

So if we can’t move away from the problem, what is one to do? Healthy eating, good lifestyle choices, stress management and conditioning a strong heart through exercise to weather any temperature is key.

For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association recommends: at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days per week for a total of 150 minutes. (Exercising hard enough to break a sweat but not so hard you can’t comfortably carry on a conversation, e.g. brisk walking, stairs, cycling, swimming.); or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least three days per week for a total of 75 minutes. (More rapid breathing and a greater increase in heart rate, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation with shorter sentences, e.g. running, tennis.)

Along with one of the above two options, the American Heart Association also recommends moderate to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days per week for additional health benefits.

Since personal health conditions (diabetes, arthritis and other chronic conditions) may impact these recommendations, it is best to talk to your health-care provider about the amount and type of activity that is best for you.

If the winter weather keeps you from getting outside, there are many indoor physical activities to choose from — home workouts, dancing, vacuuming, sweeping, mall walking, bowling or joining a local fitness center.

And if you are so lucky to enjoy the winter beauty in the North Country, please make your outdoor winter chores safer by following these suggestions:

• Warm up your body with a slow walk or marching in place for five to 10 minutes beforehand.

• Exert your efforts in smaller chunks such as pushing or lifting smaller amounts of snow or carrying in smaller loads of wood.

• Take frequent breaks.

• Dress in layers.

• Avoid alcohol, as it can give you a false sense of warmth.

• Avoid eating a heavy meal before or right after shoveling as it can put an extra load on your heart.

• If needed, invest in a snow blower or ask local volunteer groups such as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts or school clubs if they have students looking for volunteer hours.

Remember, a strong, healthy heart has a better chance at weathering any condition.

Rebecca Boire-West is a personal trainer at the University of Vermont Health Network, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital Wellness and Fitness Center. She is also a licensed massage therapist, health coach and owner of Body in Balance Therapy.

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