Science Behind the Polar Plunge for the Special Olympics

March 11, 2022

ITHACA, NY — The last thing people think about during the winter is outdoor swimming, but every year, the Special Olympics holds polar plunges across the world to fundraise money for special needs athletes to achieve their goals.

Plunging into the wintry waters is not only beneficial because you are helping raise money for a good cause, but it can be beneficial to your physical body as well.


Dr. Zhiqiang Lin conducts research at Masonic Medical Research Institute (MMRI) in Utica, New York and focuses on biomedical research. This non-profit research lab currently focuses on cardiovascular disease.

Lin has been working with MMRI for almost four years with a focus on the brown fat tissue, or brown adipose tissue, primarily. He researches how the brown fat tissue builds and how it regulates.

He does not personally research cold water swimming, but he says there is research that shows when the brown fat experiences cold, it gets better.


It’s generally beneficial,”  Lin said.

He explained that cold stress gives a signal to neurons under the skin and that is how we feel cold. When neurons send a signal to the brain, the brain will send these signals back to the brown fat and skin and muscles to generate heat.

“The brown fats function more efficiently when they have this cold stress and that’s very beneficial because the brown fat now can consume more fat and improve the metabolic counts,” Lin said.

Cold water swimming can be beneficial for the human body in many ways, depending on the person and if they can handle the cold water.

“If you can tolerate the cold, definitely it’s good, good for health, but not everybody can do that,”  Lin said.

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