From swimmers who, in our latitudes, extend their swims into the heart of winter, to cruise companies offering a plunge in Arctic and Antarctic waters, and not to mention cryotherapy: immersing in the cold has never been as popular as it is today, despite the questions that remain about the real effects of these practices on the body.
The scene takes place in Kullorsuaq, a small village like there are several along Greenland west coast.
The pier that juts into the sea are crowded, it seems, with all of the some 400 village inhabitants. Men, women, children, often with cellphones in hand, all burst out laughing, some of them with a somewhat disconcerted look on their face at what is happening at the foot of the pier.
Small groups of travelers, only dressed in swimsuits of various colors and cutouts, encourage each other while entering the icy water. For some, getting into the water seems almost painful. For others, braver, it’s a proper plunge, and a rather quick exit after a few breaststrokes.
These people are the passengers of the elegant cruise ship anchored further in the bay. And it is in this village that an activity, which is gaining more and more followers, has been organized: a polar plunge.
When we ask the inhabitants of Kullorsuaq, who are used to freezing temperatures (in winter, in Greenland, the thermometer can flirt with -50°C), about their possible wish to take a dip, they answer, both amused and surprised by the question: “Oh no, the water is cold!”
Different ways, same thrill
And it is true that the practice is surprising although it is gaining more and more supporters. The polar plunge, which is also called the polar bear plunge or polar bear dip, in itself can take place from a beach. While some go there toe by toe, taking the time to get their necks wet to prepare the body for the shock that will follow, others plunge head first. This practice can be done anywhere with a large expanse of cold water available, which is why we see more and more bathers in winter on our lakes and rivers shores in many places in the world. There is, however, another version of the polar plunge. More radical, this one consists in plunging without further ado into the icy waters from the board of an expedition ship, the edge of an ice floe or a hole made in a frozen lake.
Then there are the large gatherings, for example, in Canada, that consist of bringing together several hundred people, sometimes dressed up, and collectively throwing themselves into the ice cold waters to celebrate the first day of the year.
There is also the dip in the cold water or the rolling in the snow after a hot sauna, or the ice baths where one literally immerses oneself in a bathtub to remain motionless as long as possible, a practice that sometimes goes along with meditation.
Finally, cryotherapy chambers completes the picture. Although it does not imply strictly speaking an immersion, it still consists of exposing a body, often just dressed in a swimsuit, to an abyssal temperature of -150°C obtained with liquid nitrogen.
For all these practices, there is often a common denominator: the benefits put forward by their followers on their physical and mental health. From pain relief to more energy, the list of positive aspects would almost convince even the most skeptical to take the plunge. But what are really these benefits? And also, what are the risks of such practices which seems to defy common sense?
When the cold does good
The beneficial effects of cold on pain and inflammation have been known since ancient times. It was indeed already a habit to put people with brain injuries in cool rooms in order to promote healing. By constricting the blood vessels, the cold reduces the circulation of blood in the affected area, hence its therapeutic use for chronic diseases such as rheumatism or fibromyalgia, but also in sports medicine to allow athletes to recover more quickly.
Mental benefits are also regularly highlighted by cold immersion enthusiasts, noting positive effects on mood, overall well-being, reduction of anxiety and stress, as well as improved sleep. And indeed, the cold causes an increase in hormones such as adrenaline, dopamine and norepinephrine. Not to mention the small thrill that such an unusual and particular practice can cause in its followers.
But the beneficial effects of a short dip in icy waters also have their negative counterparts and not the least: shock, drowning, cardiac arrest constitute serious risks to this practice and a medical examination is essential before throwing yourself into the water, especially in case of any cardiac history.
The physiological effects of cold
First, it is important to note that the benefits of exposure to cold, whether in terms of strengthening the immune system or improving physical and mental health, have not been confirmed by medicine. Indeed, and so far, there is a lack of data to understand what the real impact on the body is and its consequences in the short and long term.
On the other hand, we know the reactions of a body exposed to low temperatures.
When immersed in cold water, the body goes into a state of shock causing a series of physiological responses aimed at protecting itself. The heart races, the heart rate and breathing accelerate.
At the same time, the body releases adrenaline, endorphins, serotonin into the blood, which explains the euphoric effect that can be felt when being in cold water. “That’s because the body is responding to a stress with a ‘fight-or-flight’ response and preparing to get you out of that environment, and that may well give you a feeling of quasi-euphoria”, says Mike Tipton, professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth in an interview with CNN.
Moreover, it has long been known that physical exercise is good for both mood and health, with swimming often being singled out as a particularly beneficial activity. Therefore, it becomes complicated to establish whether it is swimming in cold water or swimming in general that leads to this well-being.
Diving into cold water activates a series of receptors located under the skin, triggering a process called “cold shock”, with rush of adrenaline that causes hyperventilation. The heart speeds up, the blood pressure increases and the breathing speeds up too, which is particularly dangerous with your head underwater.
“In water temperatures of about 50°F (10°C, ed.), people can only manage to hold their breath for an average of 5 seconds “, says Tipton. “Beyond, the mouth opens in a reflex of breathing and, if the head is under the surface, a quantity of water sufficient to cause drowning can be swallowed.”
Not to mention that in cold water, muscles and nerves end up getting cold too, making it difficult to swim and coordinate movements. Thus, excellent swimmers in temperate water may struggle to swim in freezing water.
For the vast majority of people though, this physiological process of survival will cause temporary inconvenience and things will quickly return to normal as soon as the swim is over. In addition, regular exposure to cold can lead to body acclimatization, which explains the immersion records held by some people, like Wim Hof, the famous Iceman, with his whooping 72 minutes spent in an ice bath. Or more recently, Chilean extreme athlete Barbara Hernandez had spent more than 45 minutes in Antarctic waters while swimming 2.5 kilometers.
“The shock response can be lessened by acclimating the body to increasingly colder water over time”, says Lee Hill from the American Heart Association. This exercise scientist and postdoctoral fellow at the Research Institute of McGill University Health Centre in Quebec suggests starting slowly by swimming outdoors during the summer and continuing the activity when the temperatures drop.
“Get your lungs exposed to the cold air,” he suggests. “The most dangerous time is the first 10 seconds to a minute, when people try to get their breath under control. You can survive for up to an hour moving around but for those who are not accustomed to that cold water shock, it can be incredibly risky.”
Similarly, in people who have heart or blood pressure problems, the risks of suffering a heart attack are real.
But be assured, the statistics so far are far from being concerning and there are hardly records of drowning or cardiac arrest among polar plungers. However, it is recommended to proceed with caution.
Plunging in Arctic and Antarctic waters
This is why companies that include a polar plunge within their polar program not only require their passengers to certify their good health by answering a questionnaire sent to the company before departure. They also require an electrocardiogram (EKG) from polar plunge applicants, in order to make sure that the heart will hold on. It is noteworthy that in this type of plunge, the acclimatization part is quite brief. Often, the plunge is done by jumping straight into a 0°C water from an ice floe or from the ship.
In addition to the initial precautions, safety is ensured throughout the process: a harness around the waist ensures that the plunger will not sink and or be swept under the ice floe by the current, and a Zodiac or a diver remains nearby to intervene in a case of emergency. Without forgetting of course the presence of a medical team ready to handle any problem so that passengers can enjoy a unique experience: plunging into the waters of the Arctic or Antarctic.
Thus, is the polar plunge safe or not? There is no clear answer to it. Whatever practice you choose, a good amount of common sense, training through regular exposure to cold, respecting your own limits and a medical advice are probably the safest recipe for plunging into icy waters in complete safety.
Hot tips for cool dips
- Go slowly to acclimatize your body and get used to the cold. Prepare yourself, for example, by taking cold showers.
- Never swim or plunge alone.
- Never drink alcohol before entering the water.
- Gradually enter the water. In the event of a polar plunge with a cruise company, follow carefully the instructions of the staff in charge of your safety.
- Protect your extremities (shoes and neoprene gloves). A woolen hat can also be a good option.
- Avoid sudden changes in temperature. For example, no hot bath or shower right after swimming.
- Be sure you are in a good health. If in doubt, consult your doctor before undertaking a cold immersion.
Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal