It’s around this time of year that we start seeing the news stories: seemingly crazy people jumping into freezing cold pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans. To some, it may seem attention seeking. For them, it’s often done out of health consciousness or for religious purposes. So let's take a look at the history of this strange act, the global participation in this sport as well as some of the health benefits that many swear by in ice swimming 101
The oldest established ice swimming club in the US is the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. It was founded in 1903 by health enthusiast Bernarr MacFadden. MacFadden was a major proponent for physical exercise in the Victorian era before it became common knowledge that vigorous daily exercise was indeed good for you. Macfadden was dubbed the “father of physical culture,” recommending these freezing plunges to alleviate depression, boost the immune system, and increase virility; he fathered eight children.
The Coney Island Polar Bear Club takes an annual swim in the Atlantic on New Year’s Day as well as every Sunday from November to April. Members claim that this ritualistic dip keeps them healthy all year.
Around the World
In countries where Eastern Orthodox Christianity is practiced (like Russia and Eastern Europe), ice swimming is a way to celebrate the Epiphany or Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. Practicioners will cut holes in rivers, lakes, or other bodies of water in the form of a Christian or Orthodox cross and jump in around midnight after a prayer by a priest. This is a practice that became very popular after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the ‘90s and has had approximately 30,000 swimmers participate in recent years across the country. This happens in the beginning weeks of January, the 19th for Russians and the 6th for countries like Bulgaria and Romania.
Vancouver’s Polar Bear Swim Club in British Columbia has been ice swimming on New Year’s Day since 1920. Approximately 2,000 registered participants immerse themselves into the crazy cold water of the English Bay to start the New Year.
In Holland 10,000 people dive into the sea water at Scheveningen on New Year’s Day. They call it the "Niewjaarsduik," or the New Year’s dive, for those of you who aren’t fluent in Dutch.
Several thousand Scots show up on the morning of the New Year to swim in the water at South Queensferry in Scotland. Refered to as the “loony dook,” many participants are either still drunk from the night before or lost a bet during NYE festivities.
As a fundraiser, Maryland holds its annual Plungapalooza which raises money for the Special Olympics. In 2007, they acquired a total of 2.2 million dollars and had 7,400 register for the event. A year later, that crowd grew to 12,000.
There are clubs all across the world from China to Northern Europe where the Finns and Swedes call it “Avanto,” which means “hole in the ice.” They often shout this before diving in.
Members of polar bear clubs often refer to the natural high they get when ice swimming. In fact, there is a rush of endorphins as well as a trigger release of dopamine and serotonin because the cold water stimulates the parasympathetic system. All of these natural chemical releases make us happy and aid in avoiding depression, something that ice swimming enthusiast Bernarr MacFadden claimed one hundred years ago.
Quick exposure to cold water is also linked to improved circulation. When you’re hot, blood is brought to the surface of your body. When you're cold, your organs get more blood flow. Either way, your heart’s pumping increases in these instances, resulting in increased circulation. That’s why it’s often a good idea to go from a hot place and then expose yourself to the cold like the Finns do when they go from a sauna to ice swimming. The blood gets pushed through all your arteries, veins, and capillaries and rejuvenates our skin, giving you a glow and helping your complexion. Women who often take to ice swimming say it firms up their skin and prevents the appearance of cellulite.
If your body is working hard to maintain its temperature, you’re also going to burn a lot of calories. Over time, the increased work rate is reported to improve the efficiency of your metabolism.
Studies have also shown that winter swimmers experience less stress, fatigue, and have more vigor when compared to a control group that didn’t go ice swimming. They also had better mood, memory function, felt more energetic and were more active. Swimmers who have rheumatism, fibromyalgia, or asthma reported that being in the cold water relieved their pain.
The polar bear challenge isn’t for everyone, and there are some definite warnings that should be noted by anyone looking to start this tradition.
Cold shock after submersion in this water is immediate, particularly for someone new to the practice. It often leads to gasping which can lead to water ingestion and drowning. Hyperventiliation and cardiac arrest are also dangers, which is why ice swimming should be avoided by people with heart or respiratory diseases, obesity, high blood pressure as well as children or the elderly. They say with time that your body becomes more resistant to the cold shock response and will become more or less used to the cold after time.
Consuming alcohol before a cold water swim is not recommended because you’re more likely to become hypothermic. Traditionally, polar bear plungers aren’t in these cold waters for extended periods of time but hypothermia can set in in as little as thirty minutes in the water.
Be careful of going into the chlorinated water of a pool or salt water in the ocean because that water stays liquid at sub-zero temperatures. Lewis Gordon Pugh swam near the North Pole in -1.7 degree water and it took him four months to regain the sensation in his hands after getting frostbite.
I'm not sure I'll be adding ice swimming to my bucket list any time soon, but I think get the appeal. Odds are that you live somewhere with a nearby Polar Bear Club. Would you consider joining in on the fun/insanity?