If plunging into icy water sounds appealing, you’re definitely not alone. Every year, a large number of brave (and possibly insane) men and women endure the harsh elements to take part in polar bear swims.If you wish to join the ‘Club’ this year, here are a few pointers to get you started.
Folks have practiced winter swimming for centuries. In Scandinavia and Western Europe, the activity is traditionally associated with sauna culture; after spending 30 minutes or so in the steam room, men and women then cannonball into a nearby frozen lake to invigorate their senses and boost blood pressure. In Russia, cold plunges are a popular pastime, as well as a sacred baptismal rite of the Orthodox Church. However, winter swimming is not strictly a European endeavor. The practice has been recorded in China, South America and virtually every other chilly region of the world – proof that ‘crazy’ is a universal human trait.
Prior to their inaugural plunge, first-time polar bears are encouraged to ease into the insanity by exposing their bodies to gradually lower temperatures. Experts say cold showers or baths are both highly effective. On the day of the big jump, don’t forget to bring along several layers of warm clothing – particularly loose-fitting garments that won’t be problematic for frozen fingers. Footwear is also recommended to protect the soles of your feet from rocks and other sharp objects.
Annual plunges take place all over the United States, from Seattle and Alaska to Boston and New Jersey.. The nation’s largest annual polar bear event is Plungapalooza, held on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland’s Sandy Point State Park. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, America’s oldest such organization, also sponsors events throughout the year.
Up north, thousands of Canadians take part in plunges as part of their New Year celebration. The same tradition is found in Scheveningan, a large seaside town in the Netherlands where more than 10,000 brave souls take an icy cold dip on the first day of January. Hundreds of participants also flock to Harbin, China, every year to take part in the region’s annual winter swimming festival.
While polar bear swims are largely seen as invigorating social activities, many of them also have a philanthropic element. Plungapalooza, for example, requires a pledge of at least $50 from each participant; the funds are then donated to Special Olympics Maryland.
Polar bear swims have been linked to some notable health benefits. For one, they build the immune system by essentially ‘scaring’ the body into producing more white blood cells and boosting resistance to foreign organisms. The activity also increases circulation, burns calories, exfoliates the skin and lowers bodily stress levels. And, contrary to everything you’ve heard about swimming in cold water, icy plunges have also been linked to improved sex lives.
…and health concerns
However, LIVESTRONG reminds us that swimming in cold water also carries inherent risks. The initial shock of submerging one’s entire body into a frigid lake or stream can cause disorientation, amnesia and even cardiac arrest. Individuals who suffer from pre-existing conditions should consult a physician before taking an icy plunge. In addition, cold water causes the ribs to contract at a more rapid rate, causing swimmers to feel more out of breath. For this reason, gradual submersion is recommended to properly acclimate the nervous system – but if you’d rather cannonball into the frigid depths, just don’t panic when you come up for air.
By Brad Nehring