Can women really tolerate cold water better than men?

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Jason Daley

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Can women really tolerate cold water better than men?

A number of cultural practices seem to support this belief: In the villages of Japan’s Hegura Island, female freedivers have plunged into the frigid Pacific to collect pearls for some 1,500 years; women on South Korea’s Cheju Island do the same to gather shellfish; and every spring in Fort Lauderdale, young American women are subjected to chilled H2O during a ritual called a “wet-T-shirt contest.” Theoretically, women have two physiological advantages: a tendency toward a higher percentage of body fat and a greater vasoconstrictor response (the narrowing of blood vessels to retain core heat). But those go only so far. A 2000 study at the Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine, in Toronto, found that the sexes react the same in cold water if you control for factors like body proportions and fat, and scientists at England’s University of Bath concluded that women were actually less tolerant of the pain of plunging their arms into ice water. According to Gordon Giesbrecht, a lauded hypothermia researcher at the University of Manitoba, tolerating cold water is ultimately more a mental challenge than a physical one. “The major difference between individuals is psychological,” he says. “Gender doesn’t make much difference.”

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