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How old is too old to shovel snow? Doctors weigh in

Some doctors say 45, others say 55. The American Heart Association says shoveling snow is a "perfect storm" for heart problems.

MINNEAPOLIS — With snow coming our way, chances are you or someone you know will have to do some shoveling.

It's a way of life here in Minnesota.

But an article this week in USA Today suggests people over 45 years old should think twice before shoveling snow due to health concerns, specifically heart attacks.

The article is generating a lot of buzz on social media, with some people saying, "Great, now I can tell my family I don't have to shovel the driveway anymore, I can get a neighbor kid to do it for me."

Other people are saying, "Really? 45 years old? My grandfather, who’s nearly 100 still shovels snow!"

Another doctor in the article said 55 years old is the magic number, but still, here in Minnesota, there are countless people in their 80s who still shovel their driveway every time it snows.

Dr. Michelle Carlson says the number isn’t what’s important, what’s more important is how a person feels.

Dr. Carlson is a cardiologist at Hennepin Healthcare and she has worked with patients who suffered heart attacks while shoveling snow, and she says every person is different.

"The point that they're probably trying to make, or the way I would think about it, is not 'How old am I? But how fit am I?”’ Dr. Carlson says.

"There are people who are 80 but maybe their body is more like a 50-year-old. Then there are people who are only 30, but because of their heart problems, or other health problems, they don't have that same functional capacity and they should take care of themselves too."

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One of the most comprehensive studies on shoveling snow and heart attacks was published in 2010 in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.

The study looked at 17 years’ worth of data and it showed around 11,500 people are injured while shoveling snow every year. And every year around 100 people die from heart problems, like heart attacks.

The American Heart Association recently put out a warning about shoveling snow, calling it "a perfect storm for acute cardiac events."

Dr. Kevin Harris is a cardiologist at the Minneapolis Heart Institute’s Eden Prairie Clinic. He says shoveling snow is a unique physical activity that puts a lot of strain on the heart.

"I think in general there are two things: First of all, there's cold weather, which creates its own stress, and then shoveling itself is an intense exercise that most people are not accustomed to doing,” Dr. Harris explains.

He says studies have shown that shoveling snow can put as much strain on your heart as running a dead sprint on a treadmill.

"I would say that at a large hospital like ours predictably every snow storm we will see at least one or two patients that come in and are victimized by it. It happens for sure,” Dr. Harris says.

He and Dr. Carlson agree, when it comes to shoveling snow, it's important to warm up first, take a break every few minutes, and to keep an eye on your breathing and heart rate so you don't push things too far.

"It is really important to listen to your body. And if you think you're having a heart attack call 911,” Dr. Carlson says.

Doctors say using a snow blower is a safer option, but it still isn't perfect.

Pushing a snow blower in cold weather can also put a strain on your heart.

So, again, it's important to take breaks.

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