Cold Comfort: Polar Bear Swims Do A Body Good

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Polar Bear Swims are all in a day’s work for polar bears but how to explain the popularity of these extreme winter swims with (mostly) hairless humans?

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“Winter swimming refreshes the body as well as the mind,” according to Finnish website Suomen Latu, and it’s all because of stress hormones released when our bodies encounter the drastic change in temperature when plunging into near-freezing water. Presumably this doesn’t include the stress hormones released while standing on the shore, debating whether to go through with it at all.

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Extreme winter swimmer and Flickr user Andrey Papco (Andrey 747, who brings us the chilling images above) took what amounts to an enormous reverse Ice Bucket Challenge in Murmansk, Russia back on January 28th of 2012. According to Papco, the air temperature at the time was -15°C (+5°F) with the water a comparatively balmy 2°C (35.5°F). “You can feel the effects of winter swimming even after the very first dip in the icy water,” reports Finnish website Suomen Latu, The Outdoor Association of Finland. “Blood rushes through your veins, your body is pumped with adrenaline and the feeling of achievement brings a smile to your face: I DID IT!”

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With all due respect to Papco, however, leading off Suomen Latu’s Ten Tips for Winter Swimmers is “Always bring a friend”… we’ll give Andrey the benefit of the doubt and assume there’s a human buddy behind the lens of the camera. Besides the obvious inherent danger of applying a sudden shock to one’s system, places like Murmansk are located several degrees above the Arctic Circle and solitary swimmers of the Polar Bear style could find themselves uncomfortably accompanied by actual polar bears.  Extreme Winter Swimming 6

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 With the risks of winter swimming decidedly higher than those of summer swimming, one wonders just what the attraction is. Are the much-ballyhooed beneficial health benefits really so, er, beneficial? Flickr user Alan C. (taekonweirdo) doesn’t look much the worse for wear during (and after) his dip in Lake Michigan during the New Year 2010 Polar Bear Plunge, though native Chicagoans might find that hard to believe.  

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 A plethora of studies conducted over the years in Finland, home of the sauna and its obligatory dash into the snow, indicate extreme winter swimming in all its forms can improve blood circulation and metabolism. In addition, people who swim in cold water regularly have been found to enjoy a more healthy level of blood pressure and a generally better tolerance of cold weather. According to Suomen Latu, “Many swimmers say that all aches and pains disappear in the water” but that might  be due to their escaping the dude in the sauna who was whipping them with birch branches… not that there’s anything wrong with that. The photos above come care of Flickr user Karri Ojanen and were taken on Christmas Eve 2010 at Kangasala, Western Finland, where the temperature was +90°C (+195°F) in the sauna and -26°C (-14°F) outside. Yikes!