Val Salva
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | February 5, 2002

This is snow season in many parts of the country. We've just had a winter storm that dumped heavy, wet snow on many areas. While that presents travel problems, it also means that sidewalks and driveways have to be shoveled. Shoveling snow is great exercise, because it involves many muscle groups if done correctly: the arms, shoulders, abdominals, back, and legs. However, if done incorrectly, it can prove to be dangerous because of something in physiology called the val salva.

Simply put, the val salva is a build-up of pressure in your chest cavity when you hold your breath and exert yourself at the same time--like lifting a shovelful of heavy, wet snow. The same thing can happen when you lift weights. When you take a deep breath and hold it, the pressure in your chest acts like a vice on your heart, which tries to pump blood against this restrictive pressure. To illustrate the point, make a fist and have someone place both hands securely around your fist. Try to open the fist. Can't do it, can you? That's what happens to your heart.

For people who don't have heart disease, it's not a big deal; but if you have heart disease--especially if you don't know it--the strain on your heart can trigger a cardiac event. Research shows that heart attacks increase after a snowfall that necessitates snow shoveling (1). The same thing can happen when people strain during bowel movements--another reason to eat your fiber.

Does this mean you shouldn't shovel snow anymore? No. It means that you should use the proper technique: blow out as you lift the snow (or the weight) and inhale after you've dumped the snow. Simply breathing properly can go a long way toward avoiding the val salva. It's also great exercise.

However, you can also train your body--including your heart, which is a muscle--to be stronger and more fit. There is no better time to get fit than today because another snowstorm is right around the corner.
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