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Young Russian ice swimmers take frigid plunges seeking health benefits and a rush

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
February 22, 2019, 3:12:49 PM EST

Instagram user Victoria Tsuranova shares photos and videos of herself diving into frigid water through a hole cut in the ice. She swims a few strokes, emerges and flashes a smile at the photographer capturing the moment for her 103,000 followers.

Tsuranova, a fitness blogger, is one of a new generation of Russian “Walruses,” hardy swimmers who plunge into frozen rivers and lakes throughout the winter.

These brave swimmers swear it wards off not just colds but also cellulite, as well as giving them a rush of euphoria, AFP News reports.

Ice swimming Russia 2-11-2019

Instagram User and Fitness Blogger Victoria Tsuranova poses for a photo before plunging into freezing cold water on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. (Instagram/Victoria Tsuranova)

“After the swimming, my skin is softer than baby's skin, I can’t even describe it,” Tsuranova said in an email to AccuWeather. “And the main purpose are emotions! I feel rush, adrenaline and hormones of happiness (haven't got time to search the word in English)!” she added.

Tsuranova also said that she doesn’t remember the last time that she was sick.

Ice swimmer GIF

(Instagram/Victoria Tsuranova)

While ice swimming in Russia has long been associated with older, usually Speedo-clad men, Tsuranova and other members of Moscow’s “Walruses of the Capital” club are giving it a fashionable new image.

"A sporty way of life is right on trend now," Nikolai, a member of Moscow's Walruses of the Capital, told AFP while drinking rosehip tea with honey in a grey onesie.

He had just taken a dip in the L-shaped strip of water cut by the bank of the Moskva River in air temperature of minus 2 degrees Celsius (28 degrees Fahrenheit).

“There’s a kind of new wave of young people coming up now, following the generation that set the standard for walrus swimming — the older generation,” Nikolai said to AFP.

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Fitness bloggers like Tsuranova rave about the potential positive health impacts, especially the impact the practice has on their mood.

“I’m just interested in the extreme, in testing myself. I’m scared every time,” Tsuranova told AFP news, shivering a little in a fur coat after her swim.

Tsuranova has not yet experienced a bad plunge, but she warns that you need to be careful before taking a dip in freezing water.

“It's a little bit of a risk because you never know your body’s reaction for sure,” Tsuranova said to AccuWeather.

Tsuranova said that you can start at home with a cold shower as a way to better understand your body’s reaction to the cold.

Before jumping in cold water, you should not smoke, drink alcohol the day of or the day before, or drink coffee, Tsuranova cautioned.

These activities, among others, are harmful to the heart, she said, making it dangerous to dive into freezing water.

Those with heart conditions or other medical conditions should consult a doctor before attempting an icy plunge.

Russia’s winter swimming federation, based in the Siberian city of Tyumen, lists joint health and good skin among the benefits. But it also warns that those with weak hearts or breathing problems should not attempt it, AFP News reports.

"When you enter very cold water, stress-hormone production increases and blood pressure rises," Dr. Philip Green, a cardiologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told TIME magazine, which took a look at the phenomenon in a report published Feb. 15, 2018.

These stress responses usually don't pose a big threat to those who are in good health, and they’re what cause the rush you might experience when you take a cold plunge.

However, in those who have a diagnosed or underlying heart condition, these freezing dives can lead to dangerous cardiovascular problems, Green explained to TIME.

ice swimming 2-2018

Swimmers compete during a winter swimming competition in the 25 meters long ice hole on Galve lake in Trakai, Lithuania, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. The water temperature was 3 degrees Celsius (37.4 degrees Fahrenheit), the air was -11 degrees Celsius (12.2 degrees Fahrenheit). (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Ice swim

Ice swimmers enjoy a bath in the icy water of the Zegrzynski lake in Nieporet, Poland, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. The temperature was minus 1 Celsius (30 Fahrenheit). (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

Even for people in good health, plunging into frigid waters carries serious risks. There is the potential for cold water shock, which is the body’s immediate response to entering a cold body of water and can trigger a reflex to gasp in air which may be fatal, Robert Coker, a professor of biology, clinical nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a faculty member at the Institute of Arctic Biology, told TIME.

Hypothermia, which can develop after spending as little as 15 minutes in cold water, is another major risk.

According to the TIME report, many cold-water swimmers gradually become accustomed to enduring the extreme cold. They "typically acclimate to the extreme temperatures by training in progressively chillier waters. Ice-swimming competitions are also often time-limited to protect against hypothermia," the report adds.

The International Ice Swimming Association (IISA), a South Africa-based organization that formed in 2009 with a vision to formalize swimming in icy water, includes rules regarding medical evaluations to ensure the swimmers are in good health to swim in icy conditions.

“IISA has put in place a well-considered set of rules to allow for maximum safety measures in this extreme sport and to regulate swim integrity in terms of distance, time, conditions and safety,” the organization's founder, Ram Barkai, said in a statement on its website.

People in other nations, such as Scandinavia and China, also practice ice swimming. It is particularly popular in Russia, where cold water swimming is seen as an effective method for toughening people up, according to AFP News.

There's also a spiritual element to the practice; millions of Orthodox believers in Russia plunge into icy pools for the traditional Epiphany celebration.

In the United States, polar plunges have become relatively common. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club hosted its first U.S. ocean dip in 1903.

Swimmers are not the only ones to brave the cold for their sport, surfers also head out in icy conditions.

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