Are polar bear plunges good for you?

People run into the water for Coney Island Polar Bear Club's New Year's Day swim in 2013.

Story highlights

  • When people immerse themselves in frigid water, their bodies go into "cold shock"
  • Sudden temperature drops can be dangerous for people with underlying health issues

This story originally published on CNN.com in 2013.

(TIME.com)Vinny Guadagnino, the fist-pumping star of the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore," made a splash when he took a dip in the freezing cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club's 110th New Year's Day Swim.

Guadagnino, who has done the plunge twice, told OK! magazine the experience was exhilarating.
"You get a rush when you're there because there are so many people doing it," he said. "It's definitely like a shot of adrenaline ... It doesn't affect you that much -- you just have to go in, and do it, and jump back out... Afterward, as soon as I get out, I have a towel waiting for me, and I dry off quickly. That's it -- and then, I just chill."
    Okay, so Guadagnino was swimming for Cold-EEZE and was taking the plunge to raise money for charity, but there are plenty of others who take chilly dips for their health.
    The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, which claims to be the oldest "winter bathing" organization in the United States, was founded in 1903 by publisher Bernarr MacFadden, who believed swimming in the ocean in the wintertime was "a boon to one's stamina, virility and immunity."
    Doctors, however, aren't so convinced that these plunges are good for you, noting that there is no solid evidence of any physical health benefits associated with swimming in freezing cold water. In fact, they say, the sudden drop in temperature can be dangerous for people with underlying health issues.
    "The biggest problem I see with these clubs is that people participate in them without having made sure from a health perspective that it's clear sailing," says Dr. David Frid, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
    People with a family history of stroke, aneurysm, blood pressure problems, hypertension, or sudden cardiac death should be extra cautious and should probably be evaluated by a doctor before jumping in near-freezing water.
    When people first immerse themselves in such frigid water, their bodies go into "cold shock," and they start gasping for air, which puts a strain on the heart.
    "Blood vessels on the outer part of your body constrict to try to retain heat, and that constriction (shifts) your blood demand more to your inner organs, trying to keep them warm," Frid says.
    In healthy people, the discomfort lasts for about 30 seconds and then dissipates after two to three minutes.
    But in people who are at a high risk for heart disease, the blood vessels in the heart can constrict, leading to chest pains like angina or a heart attack. As they desperately try to breathe and pull in more oxygen, they may inhale too much salt water into their lungs and drown. Even people who swim well in warm water are at risk for drowning in cold water.
    "Your muscles get cold and are instantly paralyzed by the hyperventilation, and you can become very weak, " says Dr. Thomas Traill, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "You hear of people drowning in a minute or two, even when they're just a few feet from safety."
    Still, regular polar bear swimmers insist they feel better after their dips, describing the invigorating rush they experience when they plunge into icy water. That's caused by the adrenaline and stress hormones that the body releases in response to the shock of the cold temperature, but experts say that these rushes are not as healthy as people think.
    "People talk about being full of energy, and they perceive that this has done them good," says Mike Tipton, a professor of Human & Applied Physiology at University of Portsmouth, "but 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."
    In healthy people, an adrenaline surge can trigger irregular heart rhythms and in those with heart conditions, the surge could trigger a heart attack.
    The key to avoiding such events, as with any athletic endeavor, is training. The more you immerse yourself in cold water, the more your body will adapt to the extreme temperature change, according to Tipton, who started off 2013 by donning Bermuda shorts and participating in a polar bear plunge in his hometown of Gosport, England.
    Tipton, who conducts research on the human body's physiological and psychological response to adverse environments, found that it takes as few as five immersions in icy water for the body to develop a tolerance that can reduce the risk of cold-shock response by half.
    Tipton recommends five three- to five-minute immersions -- either one a day or stretched out over two to three days. Though that protection wears off as the year goes on, Tipton says people who take an icy dip as long as 14 months later seem to maintain some of their tolerance.