Stay Heart Healthy This Winter

Dr. Andrea MacDougall is an interventional cardiologist and medical program director of the Cardiovascular Science Program at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

Originally published in the January 2023 edition of The Walleye Magazine

Heart health is important year round, but the cold weather that we experience in Northwestern Ontario can affect our hearts in ways you may not expect. We asked Dr. Andrea MacDougall, an interventional cardiologist and medical program director of the Cardiovascular Science Program at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, to help us understand what happens to our hearts when we are exposed to the cold and what we can do to stay heart healthy this winter.

“The heart has to work a bit harder in the cold weather,” she explains. “The heart beats faster to keep us warmer, the blood vessels constrict, and blood pressure can increase. Some people can have constriction of the airways in cold weather, making it difficult to breathe. With snowy or icy conditions, it’s more physically demanding to walk outdoors and the heart has to work harder.”

Unfortunately, this means that heart attacks can be more common in the winter. Dr. MacDougall shares why this can happen: “The heart needs to work harder in the cold for the reasons described above. Also, many of us are more sedentary during winter, often not getting much activity and eating comfort foods. If someone who hasn’t been exercising much starts to do strenuous exertion (such as shoveling snow), it places a sudden demand on the heart which isn’t used to working that hard. This can lead to heart attacks.”

As we head outdoors to shovel snow or to participate in our favourite outdoor winter activities, it’s important to know the warning signs to watch for and recognize when to seek medical attention. “Warning signs that might indicate a heart problem include pain or pressure in the chest, arms, jaw or back that are worse with exertion,” says Dr. MacDougall. “This might also be associated with nausea, sweating, and/or shortness of breath. Everyone’s presentation is different. Women and the elderly, specifically, often don’t have the textbook presentation of heaviness on the chest. Palpitations (racing heart), dizziness or fainting can also signify heart problems.”

With all of this in mind, you may be wondering if we should be spending less time outside in the cold to protect our hearts. However, in reality, spending time outside and exercising is good for both our physical and mental health, especially during winter when days are short. “Exercise benefits our cardiovascular health, but also strengthens muscles and bones and improves balance, preventing fractures and falls as we grow older,” Dr. MacDougall says. “It can be difficult to exercise outside during winter as the days are much shorter, the cold can be unpleasant, and the snow and ice make walking treacherous. Luckily here in Thunder Bay and surrounding area, we have many opportunities for outdoor exercise—walking, hiking, snowshoeing, skating, and skiing to name a few. For those who can’t exercise outside, indoor walking, treadmill, exercise bike, or pool are good options.”

When asked what we can do to ensure our hearts stay healthy this winter, Dr. MacDougall had this to say: “Maintaining a healthy heart is a year-round endeavour. It is always important to eat well, exercise regularly, and avoid smoking. Keep a close eye on risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. Take any medications that your physicians have prescribed for you, and seek medical attention if you experience symptoms or a change in exercise tolerance.”

To learn more about how you can stay heart healthy year-round, visit

To learn more about how cardiovascular care is improving in Northwestern Ontario, visit