New Year, New Fad: The Cold Plunge


The Cold plunge, also known as the Polar Bear Plunge, is a popular tradition that many people participate in to ring in the New Year. They do this by submerging into a body of cold water only before racing out to warmth under a blanket and a cup of hot cocoa. This New Year’s Day tradition has many proven benefits and has become something that more individuals are incorporating into their fitness routines. While there are many benefits of a cold plunge, understanding the risks and proper way to participate in this tradition is important to ensure your health and safety.

Science has shown that cold water immersion has many benefits, including:
• A decrease in apparent post exercise soreness. These “numbing” effects occur through multiple mechanisms.
• Reduction in inflammation and edema.
• Lower blood concentrations of creatine kinase improving muscle power recovery.
• Reservation of oxygen supply to cells.
• Enhanced insulin sensitivity.
• Improved mood due to an increase in dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, thus resulting in decreased stress, anxiety, and depression.
• May increase immune function.

Although the effects of the cold plunge may be beneficial, as with most activities, there are some risks as well, including but not limited to:
• Danger of nonfreezing injury, which is injury due to lengthy exposure to wet and cold temperatures, i.e., trench foot or immersion foot.
• It is possible to get frostbite in salt water due to the difference in the freezing temperatures of salt water and tissue.
• Arrythmias, or irregular heartbeat.
• Drowning because of gasp and uncontrolled hyperventilation as a response to cold water.
• Hypothermia, or a dangerously low body temperature. This happens when body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

The occurrences of these hazards are low due to the nature of a cold “plunge,” meaning time spent in the cold water is modest. These risks are threats when extended time is spent in cold or freezing waters.

So, should you and if so, how should you practice this tradition? First, always check with a medical professional to discuss risks versus benefits of this practice given your individual condition. Once you have deemed it’s safe for you to take the plunge, be sure to start slowly by immersing in warmer waters and spending small amounts of time in the water. Be sure to always keep your head out of the water. As you become more versed in the cold plunge, you may gradually decrease temperatures and increase the duration in the water. Additionally, by increasing your overall fitness this practice will become easier overtime. As, we ring in the New Year, it’s important to remember the benefits and dangers of the Polar Bear Plunge and that it is not for everyone. Be sure to take proper precautions, be wise and have fun! Happy New Year!

Tipton, M.J., Collier, N., Massey, H., Corbett, J. and Harper, M. (2017), Cold water immersion: kill or cure?. Exp Physiol, 102: 1335-1355. https://doi.org/10.1113/EP086283