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Stock photo by Jill Wellington

While shoveling snow is seen as little more than an annoying chore to many, it's actually a surprisingly dangerous affair. According to the National Safety Commission, shoveling snow is the cause of thousands of injuries and an estimated 100 deaths per year nationwide.

What makes shoveling snow so dangerous? In short, it can really do a number on your heart. For those who don't get a lot of exercise especially, suddenly pushing around hundreds of pounds of snow is no easy feat; combining that with the cold weather doesn't help. Even in the healthiest people, cold weather increases heart rate and blood pressure, makes arteries constrict, and makes blood clot more easily.

In order to get through this chore safely, the American Heart Association and National Safety Commission offer these tips:

Consult your doctor before doing any shoveling if you have a history of heart disease. Shoveling your sidewalk isn't a cause worth dying for.

Dress to prevent hypothermia. Dress in layers of warm clothing that will trap air in-between the layers to insulate you, and make sure to wear a hat.

Take your cellphone with you if you have one. Every minute counts in an emergency, and having a way to call for help quickly can be crucial.

Take breaks. The temptation to speed through the task and get it over with is great, but taking frequent breaks can reduce stress on the heart and allow you to assess how your body is feeling.

Don't smoke or eat anything heavy before or immediately after shoveling. Eating a substantial meal or smoking can put extra strain on the heart. If you're planning to have a big dinner or want to have a smoke, wait a until a while after you're done - but as the first tip says, don't rush. 

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The mulled wine can wait until after you're done. Stock photo from Pixabay

Don't drink alcohol before shoveling, either. Drinking alcohol can make you feel warmer, but it doesn't actually raise your temperature. As mentioned before, cold weather makes blood vessels constrict. This is one of your body's natural defenses against cold: constricting blood vessels keep your blood closer to the innermost parts of your body where it will stay warm.

Alcohol does the complete opposite of this defense mechanism: it causes blood vessels to dilate. This brings blood closer to the skin, making you feel warm. The problem is that blood closer to the surface of the skin is exposed to the cold air.

The overall result: your core body temperature can suddenly drop and you might not even notice it.

Use a small shovel or a snowblower. It's safer to pick up smaller amounts of snow many times than to haul just a few giant shovels full. Hefting heavy snow can suddenly cause an acute rise in blood pressure. If possible, pushing snow is even safer than picking it up, or a snowblower can be used if there is one available.

Classic advice: lift with your legs, not your back. Anyone who's ever lifted anything has probably heard this one, but it bears repeating.

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Stock photo by Simon Rohr

Learn heart attack warning signs. One of the most important things to keep in mind when considering heart attack symptoms is that they can differ depending on sex.

Pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue are common universal heart attack symptoms.

Women are more likely to report pain on the right side of the chest, general discomfort that may manifest as a dull ache, and a feeling resembling indigestion. They are also several times more likely to have their symptoms recognized as being heart-related.

Women are more likely to experience discomfort in the throat, a sensation of pressure on the chest, pain in the arms/jaw/between the shoulder blades, and vomiting, sometimes with little or negligible chest pain. Even among medical professionals these symptoms can be poorly understood, leading to a higher number of incorrect diagnoses and higher in-hospital mortality, especially for those who experience heart attacks at relatively young ages.

The holiday season is an especially terrible time to lose a loved one. Please stay safe this winter!