Most people run and hide from the great outdoors once winter hits. Visions of a cozy fire and a steaming mug of hot chocolate are soothing to those who fear the vicious elements that are a Canadian winter. The people at Piedmont’s Polar Bear Club, however, would encourage everyone to shrug off the woolen blanket and head right into the subzero conditions!
The Polar Bear’s Club is a spa nestled in the region of Piedmont, just north of Montreal. The main focus of the spa is the practice of hydrotherapy; going in and out of hot and cold baths as a form of relaxation and rejuvenation. The technique has long been used all over the world and has gradually been growing in popularity here in Quebec.
According to Isaac Ernest, a Concordia student who works at the spa, word is spreading fast about the benefits of the Polar Bear’s Club.
“Every weekend we have, on average, at least 300 people who come for their first time,” he said.
Dubious newcomers are given a tour by one of the club’s employees before they strip down and jump into cold. Tour guides take the time to go over the services offered at the club, and the procedure to follow for the best results.
The club has two dry saunas, two steam saunas, three hot tubs, two cold pools, and two points of access to the icy river. The idea is to go from hot to cold, then take a short rest before repeating the process. Visitors can choose the order and duration of activities they follow, but guidelines are given as to how to avoid any kind of injury while maximizing the beneficial effects.
Employees recommend spending at least 15 minutes in the sauna to get the body to a good temperature before heading to the cold. The river is the ideal second stop, according to the tour guides, because it gives an incredible jolt and is a good counter to the hot conditions of the sauna.
While dunking one’s head in the river is not necessary, it is important to at least wet the back of the neck as this is a key spot for temperature release in the body. After the shock of the cold, newcomers should take a short break in one of the designated relaxation areas. Calming music plays as visitors regain the breath they lost from icy gasps, and allow their heartbeats to resume normal patterns once again. Once the body feels rejuvenated and the positive effects start to set in, aspiring polar bears can head out to repeat a similar routine for round two!
Steam saunas can be used as an alternative to dry saunas and outdoor hot tubs can offer a calming inter-activity moment for those who want to breathe in fresh air. Outdoor pools kept at 2 C can serve as chilling replacements for the river. However, at 4 C, the natural water which is in constant motion may be even less of a shock to the system.
Club members walk from station to station in wet bathing suits with only towels and/or bathrobes to shield them from the outdoor air. Flip flops are the footwear of choice and are easily slid on and off for each new activity. Visitors marvel at the fact they are relatively unaffected by the winter chill that, only moments earlier, had had them clothed in parkas, toques and waterproof boots. The effects of the hydrotherapy are immediately obvious and are responsible for the body’s curious reaction to the cold.
Exposure to hot temperatures gives the cardiovascular system a jolt. Blood vessels widen as the heart rate increases and the blood pressure decreases. This causes a release of tension in the body and helps the muscle tissue to relax. Warm temperatures are comforting and allow for an overall soothing sensation
By moving the body from the calming effects of the heat and exposing it to colder temperatures, different stimulations are felt. Blood vessels constrict and blood pressure increases, giving the sensation of being refreshed and alert. The body begins to secrete endorphins (feel-good hormones) in response to the shock of changing the exterior conditions. The skin is also detoxified as a result of the opening and closing of pores due to the hot, and then cold, conditions.
Making the switch from hot to cold conditions also produces a number of health benefits. The immune system is stimulated, and blood flow increases. Endorphins are produced, and the digestive system is invigorated. Nerves carry the impulses that are felt at the skin level deeper into the body to create the positive reactions.
People with cardiac, or respiratory conditions, are warned not to partake in the Polar Bear’s Club activities, as the sharp contrast in temperatures may be too much for their systems to handle.
“It’s also something that takes your blood pressure way down,” Ernest said. “So if you’re someone who has low blood pressure, this is not really the place for you to be.” While hydrotherapy can be a positive experience for many, Ernest warned there are “certain people with certain illnesses that should not be doing this kind of therapy.”
The Polar Bear’s Club is open all year long. Conditions are definitely less intense during the summer months, but Ernest says a benefit is still to be had during the warmer season.
“A lot people, in their weekly routine, they don’t sweat. So, coming to take saunas really helps to clean out you body. [It] helps to clean out your pores, and gets the toxins out of your blood stream too,” Ernest said.
Winter is, however, “by far, [the] busiest time,” Ernest said. “We can have up to 700 people in one day,” he said.
Ernest, who lives in the Piedmont area and commutes to school during the week, said the Polar Bear’s Club is a source of relaxation for him.
“It’s the best place to come back to, to just totally disconnect,” he said. Employees at the Polar Bear’s Club, Ernest added, are granted free access to the club’s facilities.
“We stay after nine o’clock,” he said. “And we have the whole place to ourselves. It’s pretty sweet.”
The Polar Bear’s Club is open Mon-Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (450) 227-4616