Be Heart Smart in the Winter

Winter can be a joyous season for people of all ages. Those who embrace it know what makes it so wonderful. The beauty of a glistening snowfall, the thrill of sports like skiing and skating, the reward of a frothy hot chocolate after a day of winter fun. But for all its glories, winter can also bring a certain element of danger to our lives, particularly when it comes to our hearts, and it's important to appreciate both the benefits and risks of this chilly season.

Give winter a whole-hearted welcome

When the cold winter snap hits, our motivation to stay physically active invariably plummets-especially when it comes to outdoor activity. By decreasing our physical activity, we're essentially 'hibernating' our hearts, which is not good for them.

Hearts need regular exercise and winter weather affords us many fun options for physical activity. Here are just a few ideas that you and your family can do to get those hearts pumping:

  • tobogganing
  • skiing
  • skating
  • snowboarding
  • build a snow fort or a snow man
  • walking the dog.

Get the kids outside

As the days get shorter and the temperature drops, many children retreat indoors and become more sedentary. Often the only parts of their bodies getting exercise are their eyes-darting back on forth on the TV or family computer.

With the dramatic increase in childhood obesity, getting kids outside during the winter is perhaps more important than it's ever been. It's true. This is often easier said than done. When faced with the choice of snuggling up under a cozy blanket and watching TV or bundling up to build a snowman, many kids would much rather opt for the cozy blanket. Changing their perceptions of what's fun relies largely on driving home the rewards of staying active-even when it's cold.

Here are a few tricks to making sure your kids get rosy cheeks this winter:

  • Educate them about the benefits. Teach your kids why they should get outside regularly in winter. It's not just because Mommy wants to prepare dinner in peace. It's because it's good for their health. Explain why it's good for their health.
  • Get your friends and neighbours to participate. Take turns hosting backyard winter playtime and provide kids with fun materials to build snowmen and forts.
  • Capture the fun on film. Document your family's fun on camera or video. Show them how happy they are once they get bundled up and moving.
  • Let them be your little helper. Next time you need to shovel the front walkway, encourage your little one to lend a hand. Give them a child size shovel and let them pitch in. They'll feel valued and their health will be the better for it.
  • Reward their workout. Many would say that when we exercise we earn our appetite. When the kids pile in the door with their healthy glow, reward them with a fun snack or even a hot chocolate.

Get active this winter!

WinterActive: Provides ideas for winter activities and includes tips for winter safety, snow games, gift ideas and a winter active book list.

Shovel with care

Shovelling snow. Two words that many like to avoid but unfortunately most have to do when winter strikes. Aside from being a somewhat tedious task, shovelling can also be a very dangerous activity. The physical demands of shovelling combined with cold temperatures can pose fatal risks on the heart. By taking the following precautions, you're doing your body a favour.

  • Warm up. Shovelling is just like any other form of exercise. It's a good idea to limber up with some basic stretches before you begin.
  • Layer upon layer. The body quickly generates heat when shovelling. By dressing in thin, breathable layers, you can avoid overheating.
  • Avoid a full stomach. Be sure to digest your meals before picking up the shovel. A full stomach can cause strain on the heart during physical activity.
  • Take a break. Giving yourself a breather in the middle of strenuous shovelling is good for the muscles, especially the heart muscle.
  • Use the buddy system. Even shovelling is better when you do it in twos. You cut your work and half and you have a pal to keep you company. Plus, you can look out for one another should anything serious happen.
  • Consult your doctor. Those who are older, overweight, out of shape and/or have a history of heart disease in the family should seek expert advice from their doctor before taking their chances.

How exactly do heart attacks occur when shovelling?

Strenuous exercise and cold weather each have the ability to increase blood pressure and heart rate. They can also elevate blood concentration of fibrinogen, a protein associated with blood clotting. But when strenuous exercise and cold weather are combined, the risk of heart attack is even greater.

As your heart beats faster, the shape of your blood vessels can change. Studies have shown that those who have died while shovelling snow or performing other vigorous winter activities, have plaque inside their blood vessels that has ruptured. This rupture may be caused by an increase in blood pressure or changes in vascular tone linked to physical exertion.

Research also indicates that acute heart problems increase in connection with significant dips in outdoor temperature. One study notes that a 10-degree drop in temperature represents a 38 percent increased risk of a recurrent heart attack.

Source: Heart and Stroke's Point of View - Should heart patients shovel snow?, published by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

Sometimes it's just too cold

There are days when braving the cold just isn't an option. If your weather calls for temperatures below -40°C, which is often caused by wind chill, you are best to take shelter indoors. But this doesn't mean you can't exercise. Hop on the treadmill, find inner peace on the yoga mat or hit the dance floor with some friends. Your heart will thank you. And when spring arrives, you'll be fit as a fiddle.

Prepared by Alberta Health Services. This article appeared originally on the Canadian Health Network Web site.

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