This winter, as in the dead of many winters past, mobs of people in Madison, New London, and a half dozen or so other Connecticut communities will gleefully subject themselves to an icy bath that, if inflicted on an unwilling recipient, likely would violate the United Nations Convention on Torture. Clad in bikinis, shorts, and other beach duds more appropriate for July, and sometimes wacky costumes, they will make like penguins and uproariously charge into the near-freezing waters of Long Island Sound or, inland, various lakes and ponds. They indulge in this literal chill out to raise money for the Connecticut Special Olympics, raking in more than $600,000 last year alone.
So-called Penguin Plunges—almost a dozen are held in the state during the winter—are great fun for a great cause but could have a distinct downside for participants with dicey health. The shock of sudden immersion in frigid water, especially full body, is particularly risky for people with cardiovascular issues or even a family history of such. The consequences could be “catastrophic,” says a cardiologist at a hospital consistently rated among the top in the nation, Cleveland Clinic.
Think heart attack or even ending up not just with temporary shivers but permanently cold, as in dead. There is a reason Special Olympics insists participants, or guardians if they are under the age of 18, sign a waiver stating that they are “qualified, in good health, and in proper physical condition to participate in such an activity.” The waiver also says that if the participant believes “event conditions are unsafe, he/she will immediately discontinue participation in the activity.” Signing is no guarantee that a swimmer has taken precautions.
“The biggest problem I see is that people participate … without having made sure from a health perspective that it’s clear sailing,” says Dr. David Frid, who has been quoted often in the media on the impact of cold-water swimming events, which often go by the generic name, polar plunges. “Be thoughtful” before jumping into cold water, says Frid, especially if you are a first-timer. If you had a risk problem, he says, “you wouldn’t run a marathon without checking first with your doctor.” The same goes for polar plunges. “Even people of seemingly sound health with cardiovascular problems in their family should be evaluated by a physician,” he suggests.
Madison’s Dr. Kornelia Keszler has blunt advice for people with diabetes, heart issues, or hypertension who might be pondering taking an icy plunge: “Don’t do it.” Keszler, whose practice includes cardiology and internal medicine, says she even advises patients with heart disease to avoid cold showers.
Cold water steals body heat 32 times faster than cold air. The term for the body’s reaction when suddenly—and “suddenly” is the key word here—plunged into chilly water is “cold-shock response.” Nerves in the skin sense cold and transmit that fact to the brain, which kicks in the response. It blasts the body immediately and can occur even when water temperatures are in the 50s Fahrenheit (F)—the colder the water, the stronger the response. (When the United States Coast Guard defined “cold water” in 1983, it selected 60 degrees F and below.) After reflexive gasping for air and hyperventilation, the real trouble starts.
“The physiological impact of sudden immersion in icy water is extreme and affects the entire circulatory system,” says Frid. The circulatory responses are choreographed by adrenalin, pumped out in a big gush when the body feels sudden stress. It is the same adrenaline dump that, as a martial arts instructor, I discuss with my students when considering the “fight or flight response,” the body’s reaction to immediate threat. Adrenalin makes blood vessels constrict, forcing the heart to labor and blood pressure to elevate. By narrowing, vessels are trying to conserve heat by pooling blood in the body’s core, warming vital organs, and away from the surface, where heat dissipates. There may be another defensive function here as well, inherited from our primal ancestors. Less blood in the extremities reduces bleeding from wounds, such as those from a predator.
Depending on the person, adrenalin can hit a level where it optimizes, juicing up the senses and physical performance, a runner’s high, in effect. Therein rests the scientifically unproven assertion by some health faddists that swimming in cold water ups one’s vitality. Science aside, veteran polar plunges say it really peps them up.
Years ago, while working with public aquariums and on story assignments about marine life, I tried winter diving in Long Island Sound, through the ice of a Connecticut lake, and off the coast of New Jersey to collect sea urchins for a marine laboratory. Even with a wet suit—admittedly not one specially designed for real cold—the initial sensation of frigid water seeping under neoprene was painful. A true brush with disaster was when, while waterfowling, I fell into a water-filled creek on Great Island, in the mouth of the Connecticut River, with the air temperature near zero. Ironically, a friend who fell in with me was a veteran of Air Force special operations with cold-weather training. By the time we got to our pram and paddled back to our truck, hypothermia—the next step after cold shock—was looming.
Those experiences cured me of any desire to experience the icy baptism of polar plunges, whatever good they do. Besides, now in my mid-70s and popping pills to keep down my blood pressure, I heed the warnings of physicians, even though I am in good enough shape for intense martial arts training. Being in sound physical condition can reduce the risk posed by cold water. Ironically, so can being overweight, at least in one sense. Fat insulates the body against cold, so a skinny marathoner may freeze up faster than a chubby couch potato.
Whether a person is tubby or thin, the threat of cold shock decreases when entering the water gradually. The idioms about testing the water and dipping a toe in the water hold true here. Warm up gradually after leaving the water as well. Warmth dilates blood vessels, which causes heat loss and can cause an unhealthy drop in blood pressure if it happens too quickly. That is one reason warming up with a shot of booze is a bad idea; alcohol has the same effect on one’s circulatory piping. Connecticut Penguin Plunges provide entrants with a liquid warm-up in the form of coffee and hot chocolate. There is a heated tent at plunges, too.
Neal Peterson, a Clinton house painter and handyman, has Penguin Plunged 10 times at the Madison Surf Club, where the state’s first plunge was held in 1990. “It’s invigorating,” he attests, adding that he really enjoyed the experience. Plungers really do have a good time. So, if health is not a problem and you are ready to go toe-to-toe with cold water—you can get away with just dipping your toe—by all means take the plunge and give Special Olympics a hand.