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Trail use aids physiological and psychological health, even in unexpected ways, according to York University in Toronto Fitness Laboratory.

arrow From the Winter 2011 issue of the American Trails Magazine


Fitness on the trail for OHV riders

photo of man running on treadmill

Human Performance Laboratory at York University


I have been active in the outdoors all of my life. Camping, hiking, fishing, canoeing, and swimming were all parts of family recreational time. When I lived in Washington State for a while one of my favorite forms of outdoor recreation was hiking on Mount Rainier; and one of my favorite hikes was along the Carbon River and Glacier. This was a seven-mile trip out to the Tolmie Peak lookout and back going over Ipsut Pass. The total length of the hike is 14 miles and has several thousand feet of elevation change. It takes a full day and is a great workout.

Once I moved back to Minnesota, the hikes just weren’t the same so I found another form of outdoor recreation: riding Off-Highway Motorcycles (OHMs). While many people believe that OHM riding just involves sitting on a motorcycle and letting it carry you and do all of the work, nothing can be farther from the truth. It took me a full riding season to build up enough endurance to last an entire day of riding and I was still completely exhausted by the end of the day; much more exhausted than my 14-mile Tolmie Peak hike. I even started working out in a gym during the winter so that I could ride well the next season.

This physical exertion is nothing new to Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) riders, but convincing the non-riding public or government officials of the fact was always dubious at best; until 2010 at least. The story actually begins in 2006 with the Ontario Federation of Trail Riders (OFTR) out of Ontario, Canada. In Ontario Canada, trails fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health Promotion and Sport where riding an off road motorcycle wasn’t necessarily considered a physical activity since a motor is used. The OFTR needed to provide real proof that riding an OHM can raise your heart rate.


photo of motorcycle and ATV riders on dirt trail

Oxygen consumption increases by 3.5 times for ATV riders
and 6 times for off- highway motorcycle riders


York University in Toronto has a Fitness Laboratory and they perform fitness tests for prison guards, firefighters and the NHL draft. The OFTR approached the University and found Jamie Burr, a PhD candidate, willing to perform a pilot study with limited resources. “We paid him $500 and arranged to have 12 riders tested at Canadian Motorcycle Training Services at Horseshoe Resort” according to Ken Hoeverman, Executive Director of the OFTR. “We needed a pilot study to get the wheels turning into a full and comprehensive research study that would be credible.”

The underlying question proposed for the study was, “Does participation in Off-Highway Vehicle recreation have reasonable energy demands to be considered a legitimate form of exercise”. The answer was a resounding yes; relating Off-Highway Motorcycle to hard or vigorous exercise according to Canada’s Health and Fitness Benefits of Physical Activity Performance guidelines and the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) position on the “recommended quantity and quality of exercise”. The results of this pilot study were conclusive enough to warrant further studies.

The next study was also with Jamie Burr, together with colleagues Veronica K. Jamnik and Jim A. Shaw and Professor Norman Gledhill at York University; its purpose was to characterize the physiological demands of recreational OHV riding under typical OHV riding conditions using habitual recreation OHV riders. It was funded by the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council, the All-Terrain Quad Council of Canada, The Motorcyclists Confederation of Canada and the Government of Nova Scotia.


Photo of motor cycle rider with backpack

Portable VO2 testing computer

This study had two phases. The first phase was to survey 310 participants to determine the characteristics of the "typical" rider and the "typical" ride. This would be used as a baseline for further research. Phase 2 of the study was to monitor and measure the physical demands of OHV riding, including both OHMs and ATVs. The physical demands of the sport included oxygen consumption, muscular involvement (fatigue), and rate of exertion. The study used established scientific methods and correlation practices.

The results were published in four reports; with the first report published in 2010. The first report was regarding the physiological results of OHV riding.

It was determined that OHV riding to be a recreational activity associated with moderate-intensity cardiovascular demand and fatigue-inducing muscular strength challenges, similar to other self-paced recreational sports such as rock-climbing, alpine skiing, and golf. Oxygen consumption, an indicator of physical work, increased by 3.5 times for ATV riders and 6 times for OHM riders. And the study confirmed the pilot study’s findings that the exercise can be labeled hard or vigorous.

The second report was focused on the mental wellbeing of OHV riders. Through survey information the team compared the Mental Component Summary, measures which reflect mental status, of OHV riders and the general public. Based on the scores, OHV riders are expected to have lower levels of stress and depression as well as a higher overall life satisfaction. These findings correlate to other forms of recreational exercise and stress reduction findings.

The two remaining reports examined the fitness and health of habitual recreational off-road riders; and fitness and health training adaptations from six to eight weeks of OHV riding (i.e. how much OHV riding is required for health and fitness benefits to be derived).

These studies prove what people in the trails community and specifically the motorized trails community already know: that trails help people live healthier, happier lives.


For more information:

Read more about the study at "Characterizing the Physical Demands of Off-Road Motorcycling" (pdf 477 kb)


Karen Umphress works as Project Coordinator with the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council and is a member of the American Trails Board.

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