The Medical Minute: Helping hunters stay heart healthy

Hunters with risk factors for heart disease might worry more about having a heart attack while enjoying their sport than being hit by a stray bullet.

Traversing rough terrain with heavy gear, climbing ladders and dragging game through the woods can be quite a workout for anyone, but especially those who may not be as active during the rest of the year.

Add to the mix environmental stressors such as cold weather, higher altitudes and the excitement of seeing game, and it can become more than some hearts can handle.

“It’s the weekend warrior thing,” said Dr. Charlie Bulathsinghala, a cardiologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “If it’s an activity they don’t partake in very often, and they don’t have a regular program of cardiovascular exercise, they can find themselves to be a little out of shape.”

Just as runners train for marathons, hunters should physically prepare for their season by engaging in at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity plus strength training three times a week for several weeks before hunting season begins.

Mike Zehner, a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Hershey Medical Center, said the most important thing is that hunters who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity or a family history of heart disease get a green light from their doctor before heading into the woods.

A cardiac stress test can reveal irregular heart rhythms or underlying coronary artery disease that could increase the risk of a heart attack. Those who have already been diagnosed with heart disease and use nitroglycerin tablets should make sure they take the medicine with them when they go out to hunt.

Zehner also recommends carrying an uncoated aspirin tablet that can be chewed and swallowed to thin blood at the onset of chest pain, a classic symptom of heart disease.

Other symptoms include pain that radiates into the arm or neck, profuse sweating, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath. Bulathsinghala said if symptoms develop with activity and go away with rest, hunters should stop the activity and seek medical attention.

Basic safety precautions such as never hunting alone, sharing their location with others and checking in often are important for maintaining communication both with fellow hunters and with emergency medical personnel when hunting in areas where cellphone signals may be poor or nonexistent.

Bulathsinghala said hunters with heart disease should not avoid physical activity. On the contrary – they should do it regularly, but in “a reasonable and graded fashion” and get regular evaluations from their primary care doctor or cardiologist.

He said, “Even if you think you're in good health, you want to make sure all your risk factors are evaluated and treated to minimize your risk for heart disease.”

And when it comes to dragging that deer out of the woods, pace yourself: drag, rest, repeat – or ask for help.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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Last Updated November 22, 2017