As New Year’s Day traditions go, for sheer lunacy it’s hard to beat the Polar Bear Plunge, in which people jump or dive into a frigid body of water.
It may not be as a crazy as it seems. The practice has long been thought to provide health benefits. And there is some evidence that a quick immersion in freezing-cold water can relieve stress and boost immunity. At the very least, polar plunging provides a release of endorphins and a revitalizing natural buzz. Ask any plunge participant what it feels like and you’ll hear words like “rejuvenating,” “energizing,” “cleansing” and “exhilarating.”
The dips, thought to have originated in northern Europe, are now a global phenomenon, with countless thousands taking the plunge each year, typically in large, shrieking groups. The biggest is in the Netherlands, where more than 30,000 people join in the “neiujhaarsduik” (New Year’s Dive). Dating back to 1960 in the town of Zandvoort, it has spread nationwide, with a record 37,000 participants in 2013.
In South Queensferry, Scotland, more than a thousand people gather annually for the Loony Dook. Participants dress up for the occasion and parade through the town acting like “loonies” before the impending “dook.” According to local media reports, and the BBC, most participants are still inebriated from New Year’s Eve celebrations and/or have lost a bet.
Here in the U.S., local Polar Bear Clubs organize annual events from Bar Harbor, Maine to Washington State. Here are a few of the most famous:
- Boston’s L-Street Brownies. The oldest of the nation’s clubs has been jumping into Boston Harbor on New Year’s Day since 1903. The tradition actually started in 1901, but the following year club members had “too many libations” and skipped the dip, according to the Boston Globe. The Brownies, who promote health, fun and friendship, resumed the swim in 1903 and it’s been an annual ritual ever since.
- Coney Island Polar Bear Club. Bernarr Macfadden, a famous early 20th-century advocate of physical culture, founded this club in 1903. A predecessor of Charles Atlas and Jack Lalanne, Macfadden is widely credited with starting the health and fitness movement in the United States. He preached that “a dip in the ocean during the winter can be a boon to one’s stamina, virility and immunity.” Last year, more than 3,000 people took part in the annual Coney Island Winter Swim, which starts when the “Chief Polar Bear” blows into a conch shell.
- Bradford Beach, Milwaukee. Gustav Marx was a pioneer of polar swims in the Midwest. Beginning as early as 1913, Marx and his Milwaukee buddies, Frank Sutter and Jim Brazell, were jumping into an icy Lake Michigan to bring in the New Year. Today hundreds still storm Bradford Beach in a ritual that according to one modern chronicler, says: “We’re tougher than winter around here and don’t you forget it.”
- Maryland’s Plungefest. The largest Polar Bear Plunge in the United States takes place at Sandy Point State Park in Maryland. Founded in 1997 to raise money for the Special Olympics, it drew more than 25,000 plungers and spectators in 2013. In addition to the swim, this super-cool event features a craft fair, zoo animals and a giant sand sculpture.
Finally, we found one man who takes the polar-bear tradition quite literally. Meet Mark Dumas, a man who swims with a real polar bear. For the record, we do not recommend you try this variant.
All of us at Koko FitClub – and there are a few intrepid polar plungers among us – wish you a very happy and healthy 2014.
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About Michael Wood, Chief Fitness Officer
Michael Wood, CSCS, is Chief Fitness Officer at Koko FitClub, driving the development of integrated strength and cardio training and nutrition programs for Koko members nationwide. A nationally acclaimed fitness expert, Michael has conducted research as a Senior Exercise Physiologist at the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and has lectured at Boston University and the University of Connecticut. He has been named Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” Personal Trainer, and made the Men’s Journal “Dream Team” list of the nine best trainers in the U.S. Michael and his family live in North Attleboro, MA.