While most of us are struggling to stay warm during this already harsh and snowy winter, some people are engaging in a winter sport that seems like pure madness. Stripped down to just bathing suits, they leap into ice-cold lakes all over the country. As soon as they get out, they busily wrap themselves up in the warmest, thickest towels and bathrobes that they can find.
In Saratoga Springs, NY, this year’s New Year’s Day Polar Plunge will draw more than 1,000 people. Although the event started in the early 1970s, it was fairly small up until the last ten years. In 2000, the event drew about 125 people. Today, whole families come, equipped only with a cadre of warm cotton towels (Source: Saratogian.com http://www.saratogian.com/articles/2010/12/29/news/doc4d1bf0902e68c056953750.txt?viewmode=default).
Meanwhile, in Virginia, Illinois, and Wisconsin, polar plunges are held to raise money for the Special Olympics. Wisconsin’s polar plunge is one of the biggest, drawing almost 10,000 supporters of the Special Olympics to jump into a number of nearly-frozen lakes in February and early March. In Wisconsin, plungers must raise a minimum of $75 to participate; the 2010 event raised nearly $2 million for Special Olympics Wisconsin (Source: SpecialOlympicsWisconsin.org http://www.specialolympicswisconsin.org/polar_plunge.asp).
Is Cold Water Swimming Dangerous?
Perhaps you’re wondering if these nutty polar plunges are actually safe. Indeed, the body reacts instinctively when one jumps into freezing water. First comes the involuntary gasp, frequently followed by hyperventilation. Hyperventilation, in turn, leads to a lowering of carbon dioxide in the blood and an elevated pH level. The heart rate might increase by as much as 50%, while blood pressure plummets.
However, unless you already have heart problems or start jumping in your old age, cold water swimming is not actually dangerous. Just remember to bring a few thick beach towels with you to dry off once you get out, because the longer your body stays cold and wet, the more difficult it will be to recover from the plunge. A nice terry cloth bathrobe wouldn’t hurt, either!