Cold-Weather Activities & Your Heart
Cold, snowy winters are an inevitability for many parts of the US. The first heavy snowfall can bring about the itch to get on the ski slopes, head out into the woods to snowshoe, or take the kids to the sledding hill. Hunters appreciate a good layer of snow for finding and tracking their trophies. But before jumping in the car and heading to the mountains, there are questions you should ask yourself. Are you physically fit enough to handle it? Are you putting yourself at risk by partaking in these cold-weather activities?
The Thrill of the Hunt
Large game hunting is a ritual in many parts of the US, with late fall forests becoming populated with people of all ages and physical fitness taking on the challenge of bagging that trophy buck. Some go out alone and find themselves in a predicament when it comes to hauling their game out of the trees and back home to the freezer. It’s physically challenging work, and injury or a heart attack which can lead to sudden cardiac arrest is a very real possibility. Being far from roads and ambulance services can mean an even greater risk.
Some common-sense advice for everyone heading out:
- Be sure someone knows where you are going and when to expect you back, especially if you are going out into the woods alone. Be specific and don’t change your plans without letting someone know.
- Make sure you have supplies enough with you or close by, to help you survive if you find yourself in an unexpected squall.
- Leave trail markers on trees to help you find your way back to your car or cabin in case of white-out conditions that could erase your tracks.
- For those with poor health, make the effort to see your doctor to have your physical fitness assessed before making the decision to go out.
Shooshing through Winter
Skiing is one of those activities people tend to do throughout their lives. There are skiers, and then there’s everyone else. For downhill skiers, the whoosh of wind past their face as they plunge down the mountainside is as intoxicating and heart-pounding as it gets. Cross-country skiers and snowshoers relish the solitude, quiet, and heady feeling of pushing themselves to the limit physically while enjoying nature’s beautiful winter display.
Even Sledding with the kids can push the average normally sedentary mom or dad to their physical capacity. If you have ever felt your heart pounding out of your chest, unable to catch your breath while you haul that sled up to the top of the hill “just one more time, Daddy!” you understand.
Just like hunters, however, skiers and sledders need to assess themselves each winter as far as their physical capabilities go. Take into consideration whether you have had any changes to your health, whether you’ve suffered any injuries which might affect your performance, or whether you have slowed down during the rest of the year due to a change in lifestyle. Most importantly, if you feel yourself unable to catch your breath, you feel dizzy, or you know you just aren’t feeling right during any of these activities – then stop and take a break. If you feel any of the tell-tale signs of a heart attack, seek medical help immediately. If someone you are with goes into sudden cardiac arrest, start the chain of survival by calling 911 (if you have cell service), beginning CPR, and sending someone for an AED. If you don’t have cell service, flag someone down to alert the mountain’s ski patrol.
Risk Factors for Sudden Cardiac Arrest
The bottom line is sudden cardiac arrest can happen to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. But there are factors which can increase your risk. Of course, pre-existing heart disease or heart conditions are the biggest risks, but many times those can go undetected. Obesity puts a strain on your heart, lungs, and muscles, making the chances of suffering sudden cardiac arrest much higher. High blood pressure, diabetes, and COPD are also on the list. Statistically, just being a male over age 45 adds to the possibility you could suffer an unexpected cardiac incident, especially if exacerbated by strenuous activity.
If it seems like it’s harder to catch your breath in the cold, you are correct. Cold air can cause your airway to constrict, making it more difficult to get air in and out of your lungs. If you also have chest pain, that can be a warning sign of a heart problem. According to Dr. Marie Savard, in an appearance on Good Morning America, “If you feel chest pain when you are breathing cold air, tell your doctor immediately because it could be a sign that you have a heart condition. Just as cold air constricts the lung muscles, it can cause arteries to constrict and raise your blood pressure. For someone with an undiagnosed heart condition, simply breathing in cold air can lead to chest pain.”
Prepare All Year
If you plan to be active during the winter, but lead a generally sedentary lifestyle during other seasons, consider starting a regular exercise regimen that lasts all year to keep your heart and muscles strong for your favorite activities.
See your physician on a regular basis. If you find yourself becoming short of breath during routine activities, and much more so during difficult activities, be sure and mention this. Your doctor may order a stress test to see if there is an underlying heart condition that might affect your decision to participate in certain winter activities.