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Dangeous amusement in the High Arctic

Ice bathing is great fun, but it can be life-threatening, according to researchers. FOTO: Private

Dangeous amusement in the High Arctic

Ice bathing is fun – offering a kind of rush – but potentially fatal risks exist, says one of Svalbard's leaders of such excursions.



"We know that the shock that the body receives can be harmful. But we follow clear rules, and are seeing great health benefits and an improved quality of life through the joy ice bathing gives," said Stein-Ove Johannessen, head of the Sjøsprøyt Ice Bathing Club.

Participation is down a bit recently, and has been a bit up and down ever since the club started in 2012. It has become more of a family thing during the past year, with kids ages eight and 12 being recruited as ice bathers. But now that the sun is back, expectations are for increased splashing and squealing at the fixed bathing place at the small boat harbor.

Scary studies

New research from China and Finland offers a somewhat scary picture of ice bathing. In China, researchers found ice bathers are twice as likely to die of a heart attack or stroke as the general population.

In Finland, ten regular winter swimmers were studied over a long duration, with their bodies changing neither for better or worse.

"Ice bathing is used to treat rheumatic diseases," said Maja-Lisa Løchen, a professor of preventative medicine at The University of Tromsø. "But studies show that one cannot measure any objective improvement."

Løchen, in an interview with the university magazine Labyrinth, said numerous studies have been done on athletes' use of ice bathing to recover after competitions. Those also failed to show measurable medicinal effects.

Infarction and thrombosis

In Great Britain there between 400 and 1,000 deaths each year among people swimming in cold water. Heart attacks and strokes due to sudden blood clots are the leading causes of death.

In China, scientists believe ice bathing inflicts an intense stress on the body since vulnerable organs such as the brain and heart are exposed. Large amounts of adrenaline and other stress-induced reactions flow suddenly through the body.

Se bildet større

Taking a bath in Adventfjorden in January. FOTO: Private

"You may faint from the large shock the body is exposed to; therefore, one must not bathe alone," Løchen told Labyrinth. "We do not recommend ice swimming for people with heart disease, since it can trigger a heart attack."

At the same time, she said ice bathing is unlikely to be harmful for healthy people.

Taking seriously

In Longyearbyen, ice bathing is taken seriously and the club has established rules.

"We bathe never alone. Alcohol before ice bathing is prohibited. The aim of ice bathing is to have fun and we have a very important clause in our rules: it is not allowed to die," Johannessen said. At the same time, he said he has had only positive experiences of bathing in sub-zero waters since it's socially stimulating, there's lots of laughter and the body feels more energized afterwards.

Translated by Mark Sabbatini

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