How-Tos for Hunters

Prepare your body as well as your gear
Adult male deer hunting in the woods with orange safety vest

Many hunters view wearing some piece of blaze-orange clothing as a sensible safety precaution before heading out into the woods. But statistically, an injury, heart attack or a stroke is much more likely to cause them harm than a stray bullet.

A routine health check-up and some simple home exercises should be as much a part of the preparation for outdoor exercise as that bright orange vest.

“Prevention is important,” says Jordan Ship, MD, emergency medicine physician at The University of Vermont Health Network - Elizabethtown Community Hospital. It’s about being prepared, not just in terms of your equipment, but also in terms of your body.”

Who’s at Risk?

The hunting population in Vermont and northern New York is inherently at risk. According to Whitetails Unlimited, a non-profit dedicated to raising funds for hunting education, men make up 88% of the deer hunting population. Men’s risk of heart disease takes the biggest jump around age 45 (for women, it’s a bit later in life, around the time of menopause).

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that risk is even greater for middle-aged men living in rural areas than it is among city-dwellers. What’s more, according to the American Heart Association, half of the men who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms.

When you add in the fact that many hunters have a mostly sedentary lifestyle the rest of the year, the risk only increases.

As Dr. Ship explains, “When you haven’t done any training, hiking through the woods – and potentially dragging a 200-pound deer carcass out at the end – puts a stress on your heart and your cardiopulmonary system.”

According to Dr. Ship, that strain is even greater in cold temperatures than it is in warm weather, something many people don’t realize. And hunters also often traverse unstable or uneven terrain, which puts stress on joints, especially knees, ankles and hips. “If you’re not prepped for that, your risk of injury is much higher, says Dr. Ship.” If you’re out in the woods, you’ve put yourself in a bit of danger if you don’t have a good way out.”

How to Prepare

The community of Elizabethtown, N.Y. saw that risk turn into tragedy for one of their own, when a well-known resident died of a heart attack while hunting about 15 years ago. That event inspired Elizabethtown Community Hospital to start offering free health screenings each fall, targeted at hunters and outdoor enthusiasts.

The screenings check cholesterol, A1C, lipids, blood pressure and BMI, and they also include an EKG. “We’re looking for signs of diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension,” explains Amanda Whisher, director of quality and community benefits for the hospital. Whisher and her co-worker, Jodi Gibbs, quality and population health assistant, currently run the fall screening event.

“This kind of check-up is a good idea for anybody who’s going to be outdoors exercising in any way, whether that’s hunting, hiking, skiing or snowshoeing,” says Gibbs. “If you’re normally inactive and you’re going to take off and do something strenuous like any of those activities, we want to make sure you’re good to go.”

The team offers the following general tips before heading out:

  • Know the signs of cardiovascular disease. Dr. Ship points out that cardiac symptoms can vary from person to person. “For some people, it’s an elephant sitting on their chest, but others have very sneaky and subtle symptoms,” he says.
  • Watch out for:

    • A sense of not feeling well with exertion

    • An unusual shortness of breath

    • Tightness or pain in chest, arms, jaw, upper back and/or upper abdomen

    • Unusual lightheadedness, coupled with nausea

    • Feeling of near fainting

  • Exercise. If you’ve been sedentary during your “off-season,” increase your daily movement, especially outside. “Doing some hill walking, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and parking your car farther from the store are all helpful,” Dr. Ship says says. A few minutes a day of body-weight exercise, such as lunges, squats and forearm planks, can be very effective if you do them daily. “You don’t have to go out and join a gym. Just a little movement and mobility work every day will help you prepare,” he says.

  • Don’t go out alone. Always carry a cell phone with you and make sure it’s turned on.

  • Get screened. If you haven’t been to the doctor in a year or two, find a primary care physician and have some screenings done. “Take the time to check in on your health,” Whisher says. “It might literally save your life.”

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