Polar Bear Clubs Provide a Shock to the System

Though George Costanza is not likely to join them, members of Polar Bear Clubs enjoy a nice, bracing, cold-water swim.

Imagine taking a freezing cold shower after being outside on a sub-zero day. Or remember what it feels like to dip your toe into an unheated pool and have the shock reverberate throughout your body, prompting goose bumps.

Now, imagine plunging yourself into the ocean or a lake on a winter day, just for the heck of it, on purpose, with no coercion other than your own intrepid nature. This is what people do who belong to Polar Bear Clubs. Polar Bear Clubs are groups of people who assemble near bodies of water on winter days in cold climates and then enter them, willingly, embracing discomfort and potentially dramatic physiological responses in exchange for bragging rights.

Frequently, such clubs are associated with charities, where participants raise money for a cause contingent upon their dip in the freezing water. For instance, the MSP Polar Bear Plunge, which takes place in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, raises money for the Special Olympics. This group’s next event will take place on January 28, 2012.

The Coney Island Polar Bear Club “is the oldest winter bathing organization in the United States”. Their members take a dip every Sunday, November-April, as well as during an annual New Year’s Day event. Their charity is Camp Sunshine, an organization providing support for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

A recent MSN story1 described the physiological effects of immersing oneself in freezing cold water. The sudden and dramatic decrease in temperature significantly increases blood pressure and causes blood to leave the extremities and rush to the core of the body. True hypothermia might set in after about 30 minutes, though this is much longer than anyone is likely to stay in the water at Polar Bear events.

Now that winter is approaching, human Polar Bears will take to the water in increasing numbers, in multiple locations, to support good causes, indulge their inner adrenaline junkies, and come away with an engaging story to tell.