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Polar plunge: The best way to start 2021

Plunging into natural icy waters provides a cathartic and healthy start to the new year.

A crowd of people runs into a cold body of water as part of the Polar Bear Plunge // Photo by: GoToVan

By Kaleigh Carroll

This New Year’s, people are likely to be celebrating more than just the changing of the calendar.

Looking back, the events of 2020 have felt like an increasingly unhinged and sadistic improv skit about the end of the world.

Murder hornets, pandemics and national racial unrest are just some of the most prominent issues from this year. While we won’t be waving goodbye to them when 2021 begins, that doesn’t mean we can’t end 2020 with a bit of catharsis.

You could raise a glass with your quarantine pod or wave a sparkler around in the frigid January air, but those traditions don’t seem to capture the gravitas of ending this year.

Leaping into the icy depths of the Salish Sea to wash away the anxieties of 2020 does.

The polar bear plunge, an annual international New Year’s Day tradition, provides that very opportunity.

Every year, thousands of people join together to dive into the nearest river, lake or ocean to celebrate the new year, fundraise for charity and drink copious amounts of alcohol in an attempt to return some feeling to their frozen limbs.

Why drag yourself out of bed after a bacchanalian night and dive into the nearest body of practically glacial water?

For one: bragging rights.

And believe it not, your body will thank you too.

Cold water immersion, sea-bathing and even simple cold showers have all been shown to have a multitude of health benefits, such as reducing inflammation and even chronic pain in some people.

The idea of using cold water to treat any number of ailments is not a new one. Hydrotherapy was championed by Hippocrates in the 5th century B.C., and sea-bathing hospitals were founded in Britain as early as the 18th century.

While cold water isn’t considered the cure-all it was several centuries ago, its beneficial properties are now being recognized.

One case study from the University of Cambridge of a 28-year-old man with chronic pain found that regular cold water swimming relieved him of his pain both during and after swimming. Though these findings can’t be generalized to the public, the researchers note that cold water therapy should be considered on a case-by-case basis for other patients.

Broader research indicates that health benefits could extend into preventing or delaying dementia.

A recent study from the UK Dementia Research Institute looked at how cold water swimming affected the production of RBM3, a protein responsible for forming new connections in the brain.

During three consecutive winters, researchers compared RBM3 production in cold water swimmers versus an outdoor tai chi group.

The researchers found that swimmers who regularly self-induced hypothermia from swimming in cold water produced more of the RBM3 protein, which is hypothesized to delay the onset of dementia.

The brief yearly dip supplied by the polar plunge won’t serve as a magic cure for all your ailments, but the rush of adrenaline from the cold water does give many plungers a feeling of euphoria and comradery.

A word of caution for those participating in the plunge: don’t go alone, bring a warm change of clothes, remember that alcohol and swimming don’t mix and to avoid the swim if you have a heart condition.

So, mark your calendars and build up your courage. 2020 is ending, and it’s time to celebrate.

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