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Frequently Asked Questions About Cold Water

Q:  What is Avantouinti?

Avantouinti is the Finnish word for "winter swimming". It may sound to many like masochism taken to ridiculous lengths, but it is becoming increasingly popular in Finland where 10% of the population have tried it and there are more than 80,000 regular winter swimmers who tout the therapeutic benefits of winter swimming.  The typical swimmer is not some grizzled macho-type, but a middle-aged woman with a clerical job.

Q:  What Happens When You Jump Into Cold Water?

Sudden immersion in ice cold water can result in an involuntary gasp followed by 1 - 3 minutes of involuntary hyperventilation. Specific data are: 2.0 liter gasp in 82o water and 3.0 liter gasp in 50o water (i.e. nearly your entire lung volume), and in 50o water a 600 - 1,000 percent increase in ventilation (air in and out) in the first minute. This hyperventilation results in a profound lowering of blood carbon dioxide levels and a raising of blood pH levels.

Q:  Is Winter Swimming Dangerous?

The strain placed on the heart are not likely to be a problem for a healthy, fit person but may be dangerous for those with underlying heart disease or hypertension.

Professor William R. Keating from the University of London indicates that there is little health risk in cold-water swimming unless a person starts suddenly at an old age.

Q:  What is Cold Water Shock

Rapid cooling of the skin triggers various heart and breathing responses. The heart rate can increase by 50% and blood pressure increase can increase to 175/93. Although a substantial strain on the heart, these changes are not likely to be a problem for a healthy, fit person but may be dangerous for those with underlying heart disease or hypertension.


Q:  Why is Cold Water Swimming Becoming a Fitness Fad?

The number of people who swear by the therapeutic qualities of outdoor winter swimming have increased dramatically of late. Clubs have sprung up across the country for the reason that it the ideal form of gentle health care. The benefits can be very great, it can stimulate mental processes, produce hormones which make the body able to cope with physical stresses and can increase the level of mental awareness and a feeling of well-being.  It can also release stress, remove aches and pains, increase vitality and keep skin looking younger. Apparently the frost is a great preserver!    Many even treat their asthma or arthritis with cold water swimming.


Q:  Can These Events Be Successful Fundraisers?

Take a look at these successful fundraisers:

The third annual Law Enforcement Polar Bear Plunge, with participants diving into frigid Lake Michigan, was held at Sunrise Beach March 10th in Far North suburban Lake Bluff. Police organizations from throughout the area participate in the chilly event to raise money for the Special Olympics. The Polar Bear Plunge is held all over the country and this event raised more than $75,000 for the charity.

Most were there, if not for the heart-stopping shock or the vicarious thrill of watching, to support the Justin Mello Scholarship Fund, which is to provide scholarships for students at Anchor Bay High School and Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Perhaps the most startling sight was the Hoochie-coochie Mamas, a self-styled, self-described group of five New Baltimore grandmas decked in black-and-white 1880s-era swimsuits, tumbling down the ramp arm-and-arm. "It was cold," said Charlene McEachin, 67, the lead grandma, expressing the day's most often-said sentiment. "But it was great."

In all, six groups entered the water. The oldest participant was 79. The youngest was 10. In the middle were Vietnam veterans, county prosecutors, tanning salon employees, restaurateurs.  Donna Hinde, spokeswoman for the New Baltimore Lions Club, which organized the event, got on stage and announced that more than $21,000 had been raised.

On March 2, 2002, the Law Enforcement Torch Run held four Polar Bear Plunges around the state to raise money for Special Olympics Illinois

About $80,000 was raised as 200 people took a flying leap into Lake Michigan in the 4th annual Polar Bear Plunge in Lake Bluff. At Lake of the Woods in Mahomet, 35 plungers raised $8,400 for Eastern Prairie/Area 8 during its 3rd plunge. The 2nd annual Rend Lake Plunge drew 57 plungers to Marcum Beach and raised $16,115 to benefit Southwestern/Area 12, Southeastern/Area 14 and Southern/Area 15. And in its first year, the Lake Decatur plunge had 28 plungers and raised $14,870 for Central/Area 10.

Delaware Special Olympics

“Jumping into the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of winter may seem bizarre to many but what we’re actually doing is helping raise funds for a very worthwhile cause".  Last year, the “Polar Bear Plunge” raised more than $100,000 for Delaware Special Olympics, the state’s largest year-round organization devoted to sport training and athletic competition for children and adults with mental retardation.

Q:  What are the rules?  Can I wear protective clothing?

Polar Bear participants must submerge their entire body, including the head, into the water.  No wetsuits, drysuits or other protective clothing are allowed although footwear is legal and recommended due to safety concerns and the fact that numb feet may not feel objects in the water. 

Costumes are a fun way to celebrate the event and are encouraged.

Q:  I Want to Participate in the Page-Lake Powell Polar Bear Plunge.  What do I do?

First of all, Congratulations on your decision to be a participant!    Print out the entry and waiver form.

Entry Form and Waiver

Be sure that you understand the inherent risks of cold water swimming. 

Q:  What are the Benefits of Becoming a Polar Bear Member

    1)  Shocking the circulatory system can produce a warm afterglow and a transcendental state that one
    literally needs to experience to fully understand.
    2)  It is a spiritually uplifting ritual which can surpass any normal level of comprehension.
    3)  It can reduce wrinkles.    Drastic temperature changes and shivering skin actually exercise shallow
    sub-cutaneous muscles that firm the skin.
    4)  You become part of history rooted in the European tradition of saunas and cold-water swimming
    5)  Jumping in near-freezing water wearing little more than a pair of shorts takes a brave soul.
    6)  Participants build a sense of camaraderie and valued friendships that can last a lifetime.
    7)  It helps mentally by shortening the winter season and lifts bouts of depression. 
    8)  It's a heck of lot cheaper and safer than walking on coals.

Q:  I am 61 years old and very active -- I'm a long distance runner. I would like to try the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. Will getting into that cold water for about two minutes affect my health?

If it doesn't kill you, you'll be just fine. I've known many cold-water swimmers, including members of my own family, but it's not for me. I don't mind frigid skiing, or even frostbit jogging, but icy swimming gives me the shivers just thinking about it.

For me, one of the most graphic images about this comes from Darwin's recounting of the Indians of Tierra del Fuego bobbing up and down in the iceberg-laden waters of the Magellan Passage, and then sleeping bare on sleet-driven shores. I get goosebumps writing this. The point is that they got used to it, just as caravaners did crossing the Sahara in the heat of the day, when you and I would burn to a crisp. The human body's capacity for adaptation is amazing.

So clearly, the best advice for you is to train for it. Maybe cold showers would help acclimatize your reflexes. I certainly don't think it would be wise to take even a two-minute plunge, if you'll excuse the expression, "cold turkey."

In medicine, there's something called the "cold pressor test" in which a person places his or her hand in a bucket of ice water. Certain people with sensitized nervous systems react to this test with a rapid rise in blood pressure as the body tries to re-establish its equilibrium.

It might be a good idea for you to have someone take your blood pressure after one of your training cool-downs to be sure you're not one of those hot reactors whose blood pressure soars in reaction to a cold stimulus. Long-distance runners commonly have low blood pressure, but I mention this merely as a precaution. Good-brrrr-luck!

Walter M. Bortz, MD, is 70 years old and believes we can plan to live to 100. He is a specialist in internal medicine at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic in California and a clinical associate professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine.






Page-Lake Powell Polar Bear Home Page

Jan 19, 2002 Event Summary      F.A.Q. - Cold Water Swimming

2003 Press Release    Entry Forms and Waiver

Photo Gallery - Cold Water Swimming Images from around the World

Polar Bear Club and Cold Water Swimming Links