The Coney Island Polar Bear Club has taken winter plunges into the Atlantic Ocean every New Year’s Day for the past 110 years, and over that time it has gathered quite the following from locals and visitors alike. In the mornings, ambulances and emergency personnel line up along the beachfront, ready to tend to frostbite victims or others who may suffer heart attacks or seizures as a result of “cold shock.” While the experience is considered by many to be refreshing, it may also be more dangerous for heart health than its participants realize, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
“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,” David Frid, M.D., a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told CNN.
“Blood vessels on the outer part of the body constrict to try to retain heat, and that constriction (shifts) your blood demand more to your inner organs, trying to keep them warm.”
As a result, Frid said that some may experience cold shock, which causes someone to suddenly gasp for air or have serious heart complications when entering rapidly into a cold environment. In simple cases, feelings of discomfort will dissipate within 30 seconds.
Staying warm after a cold rush
Doctors recommend that those entering frigid waters ease their way in, and if staying for longer than 30 minutes, they should take a 10- to 15-minute bath at home to warm up. According to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, those with a family history of stroke, aneurysm or blood pressure problems should not participate in a cold water plunge.
When entering the water, muscles also undergo a rapid temperature shift. They lose movement capacity quickly as a result of hyperventilation, and each year people start to drown after just minutes of being in the Cony Island water, requiring medical intervention by nearby emergency workers.
A wake-up call
Many returners say that they feel exhilarated or energized by the experience of diving into the sub-freezing waters, but according to Mike Tipton, M.D., professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth, this rush of energy is actually a worse sign than it at first seems.
“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,” Tipton told CNN.
Polar bear plunges like the one at Coney Island have sprouted up across the U.S., Europe and Russia, and with no clear end in sight, it may be more important to stay educated on how such activities could impact your health.